Brexit calls for urgent EU reform

Frankly Speaking

Picture of Giles Merritt
Giles Merritt

Founder of Friends of Europe

The shockwaves of the UK’s Brexit referendum resemble those of an ocean-depths earthquake, creating tsunamis that grow and accelerate as they spread outwards. Nobody can yet tell the damage they will do to the 60-year project of European integration or to the global economy, but their effects will be felt for years to come.

It will no doubt be to David Cameron’s eternal regret that as Britain’s prime minister he paid no heed to the warning that earlier referendums on EU-related issues had come to grief in France, the Netherlands, Ireland and Denmark.

The UK’s outlook is for internecine political strife and longer-term economic decline, but it’s the wider European picture that is the more important. The UK’s bitter membership debate and the vote to leave by a substantial majority of over a million people has greatly exacerbated popular discontent around the EU, and notably in France and Germany.

Both have elections next year, and the triumph of eurosceptics in the UK may well trigger similar protest votes. Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel and French president François Hollande need to react with a credible plan of action that can allay voters’ doubts and discontent.

Unless ideas for reforming the EU are bold and eye-catching, voters across Europe will dismiss them

What, then, might a credible plan look like? It would not only have to be acceptable to EU governments that in many cases have resisted genuine EU reform for 20 years, but also convincing to public opinion in Europe that is increasingly impatient with the EU’s shortcomings. Unless ideas for reforming the EU are bold and eye-catching, voters across Europe will dismiss them, boosting the popularity of eurosceptic political parties.

Sitting tight and hoping for the best is no longer an option for Europe’s mainstream parties. In Germany, the eurosceptic AfD has been gnawing away at the traditional support base of Merkel’s centre-right CDU party. In France, the fear is that even if the Front National’s Marine Le Pen doesn’t make it into the presidency next Spring her party will nevertheless be a dominant force.

There’s no shortage of ideas for tackling the EU’s creaking and overly-secretive decision-making arrangements. Political scientists have been putting them forward for many years. A credible reform agenda for EU leaders could begin with a pledge to lift the veil of secrecy around Council of Ministers meetings that are in effect the EU’s legislature. Incredible though it must seem, there is no public record of their deliberations, and of who said what or how they voted.

A next step would be to bring national parliamentarians into the process of EU-level decision-taking. Until 1979, double mandates enabled some national MPs to sit in the delegated European Parliament, and that’s worth re-considering.

Other possible reforms include the creation of an EU Senate to make the European Parliament bi-cameral. Its members could include nationally-elected EU Commissioners, headed by a Commission president universally elected in EU-wide polling.

There are endless possibilities for shaking up the EU, but the key question is the future nature of the EU itself. Britain’s decision to leave opens the way to a very different and far more flexible European Union.

Countries where freedom of expression is endangered and political pluralism threatened could be ‘re-classified’ as a signal to their electorates

It is conceivable that today’s EU of 28, or rather tomorrow’s of 27, will consist of concentric circles and an abandonment of the founding fathers’ vision of perfect equality between member states regardless of their size or clout.

The inner core would of course be the eurozone’s strongest members; many of these have been urging new governance rules introducing checks to prevent countries from irresponsibly taking on debt.

This would add up to some form of ‘political union’ as these rules, and their enforcement, would override sovereignty. It is something Berlin has long urged and Paris has resisted because it would spell the end of the sweeping presidential powers with which Charles de Gaulle endowed the Fifth Republic.

Beyond this core, there would be an outer ring of eurozone countries with weaker economies – Greece, Portugal and perhaps Spain. This ring might also include in some manner economically-stronger non-eurozone Scandinavian countries.

The next concentric ring might consist of EU countries whose governments pose political rather than economic challenges. Poland, Hungary and increasingly the Czech Republic have been flouting the norms of liberal democracies that are the cornerstones of European integration. Countries where freedom of expression is endangered and political pluralism threatened could be ‘re-classified’ as a signal to their electorates.

That leaves the outer ring. This would be made up of a single country no longer in the EU – the United Kingdom. Limiting the impact of Brexit is in the common interest, and some sort of special association status – membership-plus of the European Economic Area – might be a halfway house. It would keep the UK within the single market, maintain the EU’s four freedoms, including movement of people, and require budget contributions. And like any fair compromise, it would be unpalatable for all concerned.

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