To a hardened EU-apologist, the spectacle of British pro-Europeans marching in ersatz blue and yellow uniforms is heartening. It is also puzzling.
Where, I wish to scream politely, was your passionate militancy while much of the British media and political classes trashed the European Union for four decades?
Confronted with the genial blue and yellow hordes I also find myself turning perversely Eurosceptic. Fine, OK, d’accord, I want to shout, Brexit is a self-harming nonsense. Europe needs the EU; Britain needs the EU; this is the only European Union that we have.
But the EU is also a deeply flawed institution with its own capacity for self-harm and a timid, confused approach to self-healing. Brexit should be an opportunity for the “other 27” to rethink and renew the EU for the 21st century. It should be the occasion to ponder why anti-European feeling has become so widespread, not just in Britain, but in parts of eastern Europe, Italy and even Germany.
Despite much talk, especially in Paris, the signs are that this opportunity will be missed or muffed in the coming years.
The European Union is entering a labyrinth of internal and external dangers, of which Brexit may be the least threatening (except to Britain).
There is a lurch towards Putinesque, anti-democratic authoritarianism in Hungary and Poland; there is the muddled, populist anti-Europeanism of the two shapeless parties which “won” the Italian elections; there is the prospect of a trade war with the United States; there is the unresolved middle-eastern and African migrant crisis; there is a persistent threat from radical Islam; there is a slow-down in the Eurozone recovery, which may or may not prove to be just a blip.
The threat posed by Hungary and Poland is potentially more poisonous than Brexit. Britain finds that it cannot leave the EU while keeping the economic benefits. Warsaw and Budapest believe that they can remain in the EU while abandoning the union’s core values of pluralist democracy, tolerance, press and judicial freedom. They wish to be left alone to pursue their experiments in “mini-me” Putinism while benefiting from EU cash and freedom of movement and trade (and refusing all migrants).
The other 27 states could not ignore Brexit. They have, so far, proved admirably united in their response to London. Brussels could, in theory, continue to function while ignoring Warsaw and Budapest. This is the danger. The EU might abandon or cheapen its principles of liberal democracy for the sake of a quiet life.
So far, the signs are mixed. Poland was confronted on state-capture of the judiciary and backed down. The new seven year EU budget under discussion would tie Brussels funding to respect for democratic principles and the rule of law. On the other hand, the Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker crassly congratulated Viktor Urban on his manifestly undemocratic re-election last month.
The Italian political crisis is intriguing and, potentially, even more destructive. For 60 years, Italy has been taken for granted – by itself and by its partners – as an inactive, feckless but finally committed “core European”. Italy never offered much in the way of ideas; Italy systematically broke the rules; Italy rarely opposed anything for long.
The Eurosceptic movements which triumphed in the March elections, the League and the Five Star movement, have few clear ideas but will feel duty bound to block and oppose. A government led by either could wreck France’s plans for stronger institutions for the Eurozone, even though Italy might be one of the main beneficiaries. A prolonged Italian political and economic muddle might tip the Italian banking system, and the whole of the Eurozone, into another debt crisis.
And yet and yet….I fear that the greatest of all threats to the unity and constructive reform of the EU in the next five years may come from an even more unlikely source – Germany. Several senior Brussels voices – including Juncker and Guy Verhofstadt, the former Belgian prime minister – have spoken recently of the “danger” of the EU being dominated, post-Brexit, by a Franco-German “axis”.
Hardly. The greater danger is a mismatch between the boyish activism of the French president, Emmanuel Macron, and the stubborn minimalism of Berlin.
…and German myopia
At this time of multiple crises, the EU needs the full, creative engagement of its most powerful member state. As Chancellor Angela Merkel limps through her final years in power, the EU faces the prospect of a kind of internal isolationism in Germany – a self-harming selfishness.
The young French leader has put forward an ambitious programme for reforming the EU and, especially, for strengthening the Euro to prevent a return of the near-calamitous debt crisis of 2010-11. Not all of his ideas – a European finance minister; yet another European assembly to set joint Eurozone economic policy; a substantial eurozone budget or intervention fund; a two-tier EU – will fly. All the same, Macron is right. Some form of reconstruction of the ramshackle Eurozone rules and institutions is essential.
A joint Franco-German paper is expected in June. As things stand, the German right-left coalition government which laboriously emerged in March after September’s election appears unwilling to deliver more than token change. At most, the uneasy new grand coalition in Berlin is talking about a tidying up of the ad hoc, inter-governmental systems for management of the Euro invented at the height of the debt panic, rather than allowing the fully-fledged, new Brussels-based policies and institutions envisaged by Macron. Such tinkering could leave the Euro, and the EU, open to another existential crisis.
This is not an argument which is easily made in Germany – especially with the rise of the far-right Eurosceptic party the AFD and the slow rout of the Europhile Social Democrats. Selfish, the Germans ask? How can you call us selfish?
Who pays the greatest net share of the EU budget and has done so for 60 years? Who will pay the biggest chunk of the EU contributions once made by Britain? Who absorbed almost a million Middle East migrants when others refused or got away with as little as they could?
Fair enough. Selfish is perhaps not the right word. Short-sighted would be better. Germany’s economic success is rooted in German virtues but also depends on the favourable exchange rate created by the Euro, which boosts German exports to the EU and to the rest of the world.
Refusing to do more to bolster the Euro against the next crisis is not just against the interests of struggling countries like Greece or Italy. It is also against Germany’s interests.
So is Germany’s miserly policy of hording twin surpluses – on trade and public taxation and spending. No one suggests that the Germans should agree to sell fewer cars. Germany might, however, lift the handbrake on its own consumption and suck in more produce from other EU countries. Berlin might invest some of its six per cent budget surplus on the country’s creaking public infrastructure (which would boost the EU economy as a whole). It would also help – although not an EU issue directly – if Germany played a fuller part in its own defence by meeting Nato’s target of 2 per cent of GDP.
Germany, and Europe, desperately need a young leader to confront Berlin’s political rigidities and delusions: a German Macron. Since no such person exists, can the charming and ever-lucky French Macron persuade Chancellor Merkel and her uneasy coalition to abandon Berlin’s self-defeating minimalism?
We may not have to wait long to find out. British commentary has understandably identified the EU summit in Brussels next month (June) as a critical moment in the Brexit negotiations. Will there or will there not be a breakthough on Britain’s trade status post-2020 and the Ireland-Northern Ireland border?
In the continental pre-summit debate, Brexit hardly gets a mention. The June summit is seen as the great test of President Macron’s ability to deliver some form of credible reform plan. The precise details may be less important than a sense of a clear direction of travel – the impression that the EU is willing to look beyond its familiar muddle and fudge and take charge of its own destiny.
Main image: By Ilovetheeu CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons
Alison Hunter says
While I agree with much of this article, the tone is rather negative / depressive and assumes ‘someone else’ holds all the answers. This tends to stoke the fire of Brexit rather than challenge it. We need to look a little closer to home (across EU member states) to reflect on the root causes of Euroscepticism rather than pile on the anti-EU bile. Member States have done little, domestically, to promote its successes. The EU is still in its infancy. The global challenges we all face require a strong alignment of nations to defend democracy, promote openness and inclusion and fight climate change. Like you, I am often frustrated by the politics which slow down or complicate the EU machinery but I am committed to working in the system to improve it. The alternative is much, much worse.
James Sutherland says
It is a great shame, in many ways. The real split is not as simple as pro EU versus anti: there are small but vocal fanatics on both extremes, believing that the EU is either perfect or beyond redemption. Neither side could ever deliver reform or improvement because of those blinkers – and sadly, David Cameron failed as a result, assuming his token gesture of tinkering plus ham-fisted manipulation like over-funding the Remain campaign would be sufficient.
A more pragmatic leader could have delivered some actual reforms: a reduced budget, curbing benefit exports and making freedom of movement a less controversial aspect in the UK (not least by implementing the existing safeguards which the UK had ignored so far!) – and a narrow Remain victory would probably have served as something of a wake-up call to complacent Europhiles both in the UK and abroad, that they can’t just keep ramming power-grabs through without public support indefinitely without something breaking.
Like a patient with an unhealthy diet: either you can have a “cruel but kind” GP hammer home the need to shape up now, or you can get the same message lying in a hospital bed as you recover from the inevitable heart attack (if you survive). So far, the Eurocrat plan seems to be “business as usual”: even bigger budgets, more control over member states, never a thought of reform or greater flexibility – and sooner or later, something will have to give. I’ve had a feeling for a while that Italy will be a trigger for something, but the article’s mention of Germany in that role is interesting.
The EU is an economic three-legged-race; so far, the only “solution” they’ll consider is binding the common legs ever more tightly. If the Brexit vote isn’t enough of a wake-up call … what is?
florian albert says
I have been reading articles like this, pleading for the Common Market/EEC/EU to reform itself, for decades.
There is very little likelihood of this happening. The EU is, at present, working very well for many groups and for some individual countries.
The key problem is that it has – since the introduction of the euro – become, in part, a vehicle for divergence, rather than convergence. Southern countries, perhaps most importantly Italy, can not compete economically with Germany and its northern neighbours. (Leaving Italy alone to deal with cross-Mediterranean migration shows how little European unity really means.) There is little prospect of this changing.
Very few voters, as opposed to commentators, believe in a European ‘destiny’. Personally, I am reassured by this.
Leave means leave – the farce that is the Euro and the equally-failed EU economies will bring the EU down anyway, despite the article mentioning the obvious truth of “reform” – they’ll never reform and so, they will incur the kicking these crooks rightly deserve. The only delusional remoaner Lemmings to the EU cliff wil parrot those lines of : “Pity the poor who will become poorer”. Say that to the father of his son, who worked in the construction industry who was told by his employer whomlaid him off: “I can employ three Poles for one of you”. Still, that’d be racist, right, for Britons to be anxious about expecting the same – but it doesn’t happen to politicians and “Meedja-types” so “I’m all right Jack” is the remoaner, tired idiom.