THE EU: obituary or elegy?
Thinking about what might happen to us post-BREXIT has become obsessive. But do we care what effect Britain’s departure would have on the European Union in the future? What is, and will be, the impact of BREXIT on the EU?
There are significant Eurosceptic, populist minorities in most member states so the EU has every reason to make BREXIT as unenticing as possible. Yet the EU Commission has waived firm deadlines and negotiated in good faith. Under the circumstances, the EU’s negotiators to date have shown remarkable forbearance. Cast in the British press and portrayed by Brexiteers as the wily or intransigent enemy, threatened with disruption by the ERG, they have handled parliamentary chaos and delusional policies in the UK with patience and civility.
British negotiators took nearly three years to grasp that freedom of movement, goods and capital, are fundamental values underpinning the Single European Market, so non-negotiable in the withdrawal negotiations. The EU’s cumbersome structures need this scaffolding of shared values. Flows of migrants create divisions and tensions putting unbearable pressures on Schengen’s open internal borders. As Greece illustrated, the Eurozone’s fiscal rigidities remain a pressing problem in the face of approaching recession and debt crises. Current conflict and uncertainty intensifies the EU’s need to assert and support its values, a fact British negotiators were slow to grasp.
David Cameron discovered the significance of the EU’s basic principles in 2016. He came away from Brussels with humiliatingly small concessions with which to satisfy British public opinion. Worse, he arrogantly believed that he could win a Remain vote in the face of an aroused British public. The EU Commission swallowed the myth that Remain would win. The Prime Minister’s efforts to appease her Right wing through erosion of the EU’s core principles would have appeared then, and appear now to the Commission, as a potential existential threat.
Financial services represent 45% of UK exports. To continue benefitting from growing access to the EU 27’s markets, Britain had to stay open to the free movement of labour as well as capital. Ditto if the UK wanted frictionless trade in goods. But from day one Theresa May’s idea of British pragmatism and democratic accountability was to make ending free movement one of her non-negotiable red lines. Simon Fraser underlined in The Times of 4 April the lack of any serious debate about the future of financial services and the part played by the EU in their steady growth.
Perhaps during negotiations the EU’s repeated emphasis on co-operation with the UK contained elements of regret that they had not conceded more to Cameron. The EU leaders’ general failure to connect with Europe’s 500 million people and share an appealing vision of the future pre-determined far more the result of the referendum. Who in Britain ever heard a balanced presentation of the importance of the EU and its achievements? The first time I heard stirring and inspiring speeches about EU values and vision was at the Vatican in October 2017 during a meeting of European bishops, politicians and political scientists led by Pope Francis. A case of literally preaching to the converted though an antidote to John Rowley Gillingham’s book, The EU: an Obituary - nicely timed for publication in 2016 - which dwelt at length on the EU’s failings.
Containing some jargon, some futurism and several non-sequiturs, Gillingham’s book is an neo-liberal academic rant. A big step up from the daily stories of straight bananas and Boris Johnson’s casual lies, the book primarily blames the EU for over-restrictive regulatory measures and for not effectively promoting a European copy of the Pre-Trump neo-liberal US economy. It also chronicles egregious sums of money going missing in the past. The critics of the EU, like the devil, have all the best tunes.
Gillingham is thin on EU politics. But he highlights the line from Jean Monnet to Jacques Delors, the two promoters of European integration and advocates of a European army, a federal constitution and high levels of sectoral and political consolidation. But, with the exception of President Macron in his more Napoleonic moments, this is no longer the dream of the governments of most of the 27 member states.
Eastern European enlargement after the re-unification of Germany has been, by far, the most important structural change in the EU. Britain’s role in pushing for an extensive rather than an intensive Europe, a ‘widening’ rather than a ‘deepening’, illustrates its former importance in influencing EU policy and frustrating integration. The access of eleven Eastern Europe countries during the last fifteen years brought both diversity and problems. Not least immigration.
It is easy to take the high ground on refugee questions, to pour moral opprobrium on the Hungarian, Czech, Polish – (and now the new Frankenstein populist Italian governments). It is merited. But some consideration needs to be given to their painful historical memories too. Their experience of the foreigner, Ottoman, Russian, or Nazi, has been dismemberment, occupation, fear and resistance. A survivor nationalist trauma has infected the bloodstream emerging in a xenophobic way in the circumstances of the 21st. century. Such nationalism does not sit easily with EU values.
The Monnet/Delors quest for European political integration is surely doomed to failure. Maintaining a single market and currency is hard enough with this level of East-West diversity, not to mention North-South Europe economic differences. From the beginning Britain rejected Monnet’s vision and Britain’s voice was an important brake on an unrealistic political project, most of all during a time of rising nationalisms. The much denigrated two-track Europe seems an obvious answer to this unmanageable diversity. Both Britain and Denmark chalked up major opt-outs in the past and could find their place in a second tier.
After BREXIT it will certainly not be business as usual for the UK. Nor will the accumulated problems of the EU’s structure and diversity be solved by business as usual. The solidarity amongst the 27, induced by Britain’s antics, will be short-lived. Fissures caused by history, economics, and politics will reappear. If an EU first tier develops, it needs to reduce its democratic deficit and to reform in order to achieve a modest and workable political dispensation. And even this would create its own divisions.
Britain has had an important voice in Europe but after the current political collapse, it will be temporarily discounted. The patience of Tusk, Barnier and Juncker reveals their awareness that Britain’s departure will diminish the EU. At a time of overlapping crises for the European Union, BREXIT will be more than an economic loss. Though for Presidents Putin and Trump it will be a significant gain.
Posted in TheArticle.com 9/4/19 as “Post Brexit, the EU won’t be going back to business as usual”
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