Europe needs to change, with or without Britain

#CriticalThinking

Picture of Monica Frassoni
Monica Frassoni

President of the European Alliance to Save Energy, former co-president of the European Green Party, former member of the European Parliament and Trustee of Friends of Europe

Monica Frassoni is Co-President of the European Green Party and a Trustee of Friends of Europe

The impact of the UK’s exit from the EU will be a problem above all for the UK itself. It is very important that the rest of the EU keeps this reality in mind, notably those of us who consider the words ‘ever closer union’ as a clear indication that the will to build a political union has existed since the Common Market’s creation in the 1950s. After so much wasted time, we should finally start making this happen.

It is not wise that we panic because an already reluctant member of the club may leave. I absolutely want the UK to stay in the EU, but the reason for that is the important British contribution to making our economy and society more innovative, sustainable and competitive. But the debate today should be around the British willingness or unwillingness to participate in a common project and the conditions by which the UK would deliver on the challenges we all face. Undoubtedly, a part of the ‘remain’ front, notably the UK Greens, does insist on the need to change the EU, and certainly not in the direction of making it even less social and cohesive than it is today. It is for this reason that I believe the agreement the European Council reached in February is not constructive, and if anything I am relieved it does not seem to play much of a role in the current debate.

The EU is incapable of expressing a shared vision of a common future, which is exactly what is needed

I do not see any advantages for the UK or continental Europeans deriving from that agreement, whose legality is quite shaky in any case. It could potentially end up in a looser union, less social and citizenship rights for individuals, a change in direction for advocated reforms in economic governance, encouragement of competitiveness through deregulation, and limitations on our capacity to reach common decisions. As a matter of fact, while the proposals do not go far enough for those who are tempted by Brexit, they are not attractive for those in the UK who believe in a fairer society, and they could leverage cracks in our already weakened common project. The putting up of new procedural and administrative walls risks transforming the immense advantage of being a European into a bureaucratic nightmare, not only for the UK but also for the rest of the EU.

I am convinced that, whatever happens on 23rd June, the EU members, its citizens and governments, will have to re-evaluate what the Union really means and what should be done to rescue it from its current crisis of illegitimacy, as well as the institutional and political mess so evident today. I believe the EU needs a decisive change in political direction away from measures of austerity, and a rebalancing of powers; in particular, we must move away from the European Council acting by consensus – which means that everybody has a veto right bringing constant blockage and no interest in common solutions – and behind closed doors. The EU is incapable of expressing a shared vision of a common future, which is exactly what is needed to give it back some sense and direction. But this is not an issue that will be decided by the UK’s referendum.

If the UK decides to leave the EU, the exit process will take years and along the way there could be new attempts to propose ‘special agreements’ allowing UK citizens to think again. It may also happen that after a few years of ‘Brexit’, a different government may decide to reapply for membership. But would any of this make a real difference in the pursuit of European integration? As David Cameron always repeats, the UK already has a very special status in the EU. It stands even now with one foot on the outside, if one looks at the long list of opt-outs Britain ‘enjoys’, so to speak. It only remains for us to see how much longer the other members will let the British enjoy the ‘best of both worlds’, with very few constraints and a lot of influence.

The UK already stands with one foot on the outside, if one looks at the long list of opt-outs

In this context, the issue of German, French or Italian leadership in the EU after Brexit is not that significant to me. Whatever happens in June, it is likely that the current UK government will want to keep out of key common challenges such as migration, economic governance, free movement, energy, and so on. The important thing is that European national governments, the European Commission and the Parliament are able to find common and convincing ways to solve these issues, or the EU will sooner or later slip into irrelevance, with or without Brexit.

It is often said that Cameron has complicated his life by calling for a referendum he was not obliged to organise, and that he could be the prime minister who faces the breakup of the United Kingdom. I believe that if Scotland was to leave the UK after victory for the Brexit front, it should be offered a very fast track to re-enter the EU, since it appears to be the key reason why Scots want to break away from Westminster.

Though there is very little use speculating on the hypothetical, it is certainly true that we are going into unchartered territory. Still, we should not behave as if we have no idea which direction to take.

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