Brexit must not lull Europe into a false sense of cohesion

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Picture of Joe Zammit-Lucia
Joe Zammit-Lucia

Founder of RADIX, the think tank for the radical centre

In the occasional series of ‘Counterpoint’ articles, Co-Founder and Trustee of Radix, Joe Zammit-Lucia responds to Giles Merritt’s Frankly Speaking column on the Brexit negotiations. Read the original article here

It’s a long game. Any predictions of the eventual effects of Brexit on both Britain and the European Union are likely premature.

The European Union and its predecessors are well past their half century mark – and they are still evolving. The eventual destination of the EU remains a contentious issue between those who continue to press for an ever-closer union and those who see the EU evolving towards a confederation of nation states.

What each of those two basic options, and the many nuances that lie in between, mean in practice is still largely unknown. Hopefully, the Future of Europe initiative will generate the much-needed public debate – rather than merely a discussion among the elite. As President Macron recently pointed out, Europe will not thrive unless it learns how to listen, and be seen to be listening, to the voice of its peoples – something that is, today, sorely lacking. And Europe must not forget that the 52% of Britons who voted for Brexit were, still are, and will remain (culturally, even if not administratively) part of the European citizenry.

If we get past the short-term posturing, what of the longer-term impact?

Members of the European Parliament can play a key role here. They could be spending more time speaking to their constituents, taking their views and perspectives on board, visibly feeding that input back to the Parliament itself, the Commission and the European Council, and then providing feedback and explanations to their citizens. That would strengthen the Parliament by showing real engagement with its people. That, after all, is what parliaments should be about.

But what of Brexit? It is true that, today, there is a remarkable degree of outward unity among the EU27 around Brexit. But what of tomorrow? And the day after?

Brexit is a process. A long process that has barely started and will likely take five to ten years to complete (if ever). It would be foolish to dismiss the exit of one of the major EU nations (and one of the main net financial contributors) as a regrettable but largely immaterial glitch that will only serve to make the Union stronger. Dutch PM Mark Rutte put it like this: “I dislike Brexit from every perspective.”

The current macho posturing and ill-considered public outbursts by senior politicians and officials on all sides are signs of childish immaturity, not evidence of strength or wisdom. They are an embarrassment to their citizens and degrade the institutions of democracy. It is notable that, apart from Theresa May, there are no women engaged in empty chest-thumping.

If we get past the short-term posturing, what of the longer-term impact?

Today it seems difficult to imagine that Britain will not lose either status or economic power post-Brexit. But it is equally difficult to imagine an EU that can find a cohesive vision around which the citizens, rather than just the leaders, of all EU27 (or more) can comfortably coalesce. With Britain out of the picture, what will be the feelings of countries such as Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, Ireland and others who have always had a perpetually argumentative Britain to fight their corner.

It is clear that a degree of discontent with EU structures goes beyond Britain

And what will be the impact on Europe of the actual process of Brexit negotiations? In the UK, a significant proportion of Brexit voters expressed as one reason for their vote that they did not want to be part of a Union that treated Greece and other Southern European countries so heartlessly. The vast majority of Europeans are good people and they want a Union that reflects their own values.

There was a time only a few short months ago where Brexit, Trump, the threats from Le Pen, Wilders and others seemed to be threatening the EU’s continued existence. That, too, was an over-reaction. But, in the face of challenges coming from within many of the Union’s own countries as well as neighbours such as Turkey, it might be just as unwise to believe that the current outward show of cohesion around the Brexit negotiations is a sign that all is resolved.

It is clear that a degree of discontent with EU structures goes beyond Britain. In a recent conversation in Spain, a friend remarked: “If I were British, I too would have voted for Brexit. But in Spain we are too weak to go it alone.” A challenge for Europe is to be seen not just as a safe harbour for the weak – whether that weakness is economic, institutional, a function of size, or a result of historic missteps – but rather as an energizing project that inspires all.

That should be perfectly achievable. It has to start with a degree of humility, a willingness by all parties to break out of entrenched positions and listen to the other, and an understanding of the not inconsiderable challenges that lie ahead in a highly uncertain, fast moving, unpredictable world for which slow-moving mega-structures are not particularly well suited.

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