2019 will be a crucial year for Europe. What will its citizens do? In the first of a series of articles on the future of Europe beyond Brexit, Christos Mouzeviris has decided to raise some questions about the direction we are all heading in and if we are going the right way.
Most Europeans are unaware of the highly interesting and crucial times they are living. Starting from the current year of 2019, our continent will go through major changes and challenges that if met successfully, will alter Europe as we know it. By the end of March, one of the oldest and most prominent EU members will leave the union, forcing the block to readjust internally and externally on both economic and political terms. When Britain leaves the EU, it will impose several trials on everyone in Europe.
Highs and lows
There will be winners and losers in economic terms, as many EU countries will compete for firms, companies or banks that were based in the United Kingdom until now. However, the EU will lose out a valuable member, a wealthy nation, an economic, political, diplomatic and military powerhouse; one of the only two EU nations with nuclear weapons.
Britain, on the other hand, will see its citizens’ rights being diminished, as they won’t enjoy the same rights Europe-wide anymore, especially in case of a no-deal Brexit. In addition, many of them will have their financial status downgraded. The country’s influence in Europe will be significantly less, as it will abandon its seats in the European Parliament, EU Commission and Council. It is doubtful if it will be able to forge similar influential alliances and partnerships with other blocks.
As if this wasn’t enough, there is a good chance that the U.K. itself will be drastically altered, as Scotland keeps threatening to have a second referendum should a no-deal Brexit happen. Never mind, of course, the Northern Ireland backstop and the border issue there. Two months later in May, the EU will have its first elections after Brexit. Traditionally, the turnout for these elections is always low but as the European Parliament seats will be reallocated with Britain’s departure, how will the new EP look like?
Furthermore, with a new EU Parliament and its President, we will have a different EU Commission President as well as in the Council. That will mean many new faces on the European steering wheel, but also new alliances. We have witnessed two different camps forming in our continent. One that has been gaining momentum for the past few years and has managed to uphold significant power in many EU states. The union might be losing one of the most vocal euro-sceptic nations, however the economic and refugee crises have managed to provide the EU with worthy successors.
Rise on the right
Austria, Hungary, Poland and recently even Italy, have all been to a certain degree, moving away from core European values and returning to more conservative, nationalistic, protectionist and even authoritarian political leadership that in some cases they fought so hard to rid of in the past. The reason for this is of course migration and the problems that arose from it. Lately the Italian Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, has travelled to Poland to “break the dominant Germany-France axis”, as he strives to forge far-right alliances before the European parliamentary elections in May. He stated that the two countries could build a new Europe, bringing about a “renaissance of European values,” away from the one that is run by bureaucrats. (The Guardian) He plans to reach out to many euro-sceptic parties from across Europe, like Marie Le Pen’s relabelled Rassemblement national in order to achieve his vision.
On the other hand, France and Germany, the union’s two powerhouses, have recently renewed a decade old peace agreement, the Treaty of Aachen, in which both nations reinstated their commitment for deeper cooperation. It only remains to be seen if they can or are interested in extending this spirit to the rest of the remaining EU members, or the future ones.
So we are headed for another dramatic showdown in Europe come May which is just two months after Brexit is expected to happen. Divisions in Europe about the future direction of the continent are not anything new, however following the establishment of the EEC, the consensus was mainly towards building a more integrated continent, nowadays we see an effort to undo what has been achieved so far.
The disappointing thing is that it seems to be happening for protectionism and vested financial interests, immigration and diverging ideologies. The more liberal northern European states, in order to balance out the loss of their like-minded Britain, have signed another treaty of cooperation in 2018, named as the New Hanseatic League of nations. They are calling a greater role of the European Stability Mechanism, in scrutinising national budgets.
Wanting less, not more
Contrary to this, the Visegrad group of countries in central Europe, want less interference from Brussels in their internal affairs, but then why did they decide to join a block that requires the opposite? The absolute disunited southern nations on the other hand are still too absorbed by their financial woes, internal politics and social problems. The Balkans are a brilliant example of this so it is no wonder that they are still one of the poorest regions of the continent.
And while one may blame external factors and meddling from Russia or the US administration, we should not rid ourselves from the responsibility of our own decisions. In a democratic society or community of nations, there is no guarantee that the right resolutions can always be taken. That is the very essence of democracy and why this political system requires responsible participation.
Take Brexit for example. For the Tories to deal with their internal problems, they threw the whole country and Europe, into a totally unnecessary process that will leave everyone worse off. It is understandable that many in the British leadership were tired of fighting with other nations in order to promote or safeguard their interests and values. Especially when not everyone else wants to commit or play by the rules.
Yet, when it comes to giving more powers to a centralised European government, in order to achieve consensus faster, it was Britain and the other big nations in the EU who opposed it. Europe is thus a confused continent going around in circles, not willing to let go of the vision of a closer union as it realises the benefits, yet not ready to do what it needs to be done; agree to a common vision for the future and commit to it.
And while many accuse Germany of taking over Europe, they do not show the same determination to take the initiative and offer an alternative plan that will work for all as well as inspiring them to adopt and devote to it. If the Franco-German Axis persists and dominates the rest of EU nations, will it work equally for everyone, without creating second class member states at the periphery? If these two countries want to set out a plan to unite the rest of Europe, then they cannot be seen to serve solely their own interests. If they want to beat the protectionist, nationalist and populist leaders in the peripheral states that oppose decisions taken in Brussels, then they will have to offer better solutions to the citizens’ problems of these countries. But that will be hard to achieve without rocking the boat too much in their own pond. Chancellor Merkel experienced a drop in her popularity when she decided to show leadership during the first years of the refugee crisis. Similarly, the current French President Macron is realising now with protests by the “Gilet Jaunes” movement, that showing leadership and reforming a country is not always welcomed by all.
And that is only the reaction on a national level. Imagine what will happen if one seeks to reform a whole continent. However, us citizens must not wash our hands completely from the direction that Europe will take in the future. It may be easier to blame our bad politicians, corruption and external “meddlers,” yet we also have a fair share of blame. Our participation in the European elections has been dwindling, while on national lever we seem to prefer populist, conservative and nationalistic parties out of desperation and disappointment. Nonetheless it has been proven that they cannot offer long term solutions, their only positive effect is to soothe our anger for a while.
Sitting on our hands
Yet the effects to our societies that a temporary, emotionally charged change will bring can have long term disastrous consequences; like Brexit. That does not mean that we should sit and observe idle, when coming against injustice, corruption and bad policies from our governments. We just need to stop swinging from one extreme to the other and commit to a vision that will offer collectively European nations, stability and prosperity.
And while we focus on that vision, we can create a pan European civil society and pressure groups that can promote this goal. But even more importantly, participate increasingly and more responsibly in Europe’s politics; starting of course by voting in the European Parliament elections. It is in our interests and we cannot expect a national government to provide us everything that we need, in an ever interconnected and globalised world.
The current year will present Europe with a lot of challenges that will set up the agenda which could shape the future of our continent for decades to come. Will we, the citizens, turn our back on each other while focusing on our own version of the very similar problems that we are facing, or will we decide to be bold and set the foundations for a very different continent?