Using Brexit to stem the tide of euroscepticism

Frankly Speaking

Picture of Giles Merritt
Giles Merritt

Founder of Friends of Europe

The appointment of Michel Barnier to lead the EU Commission’s Brexit negotiators has provoked howls of protest from British politicians and the tabloid press. Their angry denunciations of Barnier, twice an EU Commissioner and four times a French government minister, says more about them than about him.

These cries of foul play and of Barnier’s supposed ‘Anglophobia’ come oddly from eurosceptics who have long urged the cutting of Britain’s links with the EU. Are they hoping, perhaps, for special privileges that will somehow soften the impact of Brexit?

In any event, the far more important aspect of Michel Barnier’s nomination is that it raises the question of how the EU plans to approach the Brexit negotiations once these get under way in 2017. No one in the European Union other than eurosceptic populists wanted the UK to leave, and the growing consensus is that the terms of Brexit must limit the damage to the rest of Europe and to Britain itself. Not a few people in EU capitals hope that the terms of the Brexit deal will in some undefined way leave the door open for an eventual British re-entry.

Disengaging the United Kingdom from EU membership also offers the Union a good opportunity to address its own shortcomings and possibly to further some of its stalled ambitions. The EU negotiators should on no account present the Brexit process as a punishment, but rather as a sympathetic attempt to find common ground and a more flexible modus vivendi for all member states.

Any approach suggesting that all is right with the EU and that Britain is in the wrong would do nothing to stem the tide of euroscepticism elsewhere in Europe, and would be more likely to fuel it. The EU needs to convey an openly self-critical message that its rules are about protecting people, and that in today’s times of rapid change they must urgently be re-examined.

The UK’s referendum result encapsulated the message that all the populist protest parties across Europe have been sending, and which mainstream politicians have seemed to ignore. This is that the concerns of the under-privileged have to be given far greater attention. The EU’s technocratic image was softened thirty years ago when Jacques Delors’ Commission championed its ‘Social Europe’ strategy, and that approach should be re-visited and updated.

The leitmotif of the Brexit process must be to identify areas where British citizens can still benefit from European integration. But if it is turned into a punitive removal of the benefits of membership, not only will the British react angrily but so too may public opinion throughout Europe. The EU would certainly not enhance its credibility by hurting and humiliating the UK.

The outcome of the UK’s June 23 referendum came as a shock to Europe and to the world, but looking back over recent years it should not have been such a surprise. The sense of powerlessness that led the Brexiteers to brandish the slogan ‘Take Back Control’ is not uniquely British. When grappling with the intricacies of the UK’s entanglement with Europe, the EU and its 27 member governments should also be thinking hard about parallel reforms that could reduce the democratic deficit. If Europe doesn’t bridge that gap, Brexit may have created a chasm.

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