The Brexiteers look strong when compared to the disunited EU

Frankly Speaking

Picture of Giles Merritt
Giles Merritt

Founder of Friends of Europe

Time to end the squabbling and indecision


If the European Union’s intention is to show that UK voters were wise to vote for Brexit, then it’s certainly going the right way about it. Ill-considered and disastrous though voting to leave the EU will eventually prove to be, the bumbling disarray of the ‘27’ is making the Brexiteers appear far-sighted and united by a common purpose.

EU summits have a long history of confounding hopes and expectations. When announced with much fanfare, they inevitably disappoint; when little is expected, EU leaders often deliver results.

The EU’s recent Bratislava summit falls, needless to say, firmly into the former category. It failed to address Europe’s major challenges, and failed in such a comprehensive manner that it made the assembled summiteers appear a laughing-stock in the media.

Signals on the likely speed and shape of the UK’s exit negotiations were absent from the summit communiqué. So was the long list of unresolved crises ready to nudge Brexit aside as the EU’s headline problem – notably the far-from-finished migrant and refugee crisis that is certain to unleash uncontrollable tensions when it dominates both the French and German elections next year. No mention either of the sword of Damocles hanging over the unresolved eurozone crisis.

Bratislava ducked these issues (preferring to showcase defence cooperation and more infrastructure investment). Scarcely surprising, as the EU’s member governments are now deeply divided not just on the looming dangers but on the sort of Union they want.

This division is currently felt most keenly around the four EU central and eastern European countries known as the Visegrád group. Unless there’s a significant political shift, the group – composed of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia – look to be riding for a fall.

In some of these countries, threats to press freedom and the independence of the judiciary pose serious challenges to the EU’s values. These threats are compounded by calls for the powers of the EU institutions to be diluted. Robert Fico, Slovakia’s Prime Minister and host of the summit, did little to improve matters by stating that the Four would veto any Brexit deal that limited their job-seekers’ freedom of movement.

The key point is that no-one is knocking heads together to restore a sense of unity. Jean-Claude Juncker’s State of the European Union speech was workmanlike but uninspiring. And on the table in Bratislava the European Commission President found a rival roadmap from Donald Tusk, the European Council President. Such displays of rivalry within the Brussels bureaucracy gravely weaken the EU’s authority and credibility.

The squabbling and indecision must be stamped on – by Berlin and all other EU governments willing to stand up and be counted. Otherwise, the Union is at serious risk.

The EU won’t die with a bang, but with the poet T. S. Elliot’s proverbial whimper. And those Britons who voted for all the wrong reasons to leave Europe will be proved right: they will be better off going it alone than tied to a dysfunctional Union whose leaders lack the courage and imagination to arrest its slide.

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