Continuing a series of articles exploring the future of Europe beyond the Brexit crisis, Frances Cowell recounts a recent address by Alain Lamassoure, MEP, and discussed the various positives and negatives of the current status of the EU and the Brexit crisis.
“Britain’s Gilets Jaunes take charge in Westminster Palace.”
So remarked Alain Lamassoure, MEP, in his address to the Institut des Hautes Etudes de la Defense Nationale (IHEDN) in Paris on 18 January, 2019. He was speaking about the consequences of Brexit for the European Union project.
Monsieur Lamassoure identified two immediate consequences:
The first is that the British reputation as sensible pragmatists is in tatters.
Second, European anti-EU populists, notably Marine LePen in France, have stopped talking about quitting the EU and now favour staying in both the euro and the EU.
He described three oddities of Brexit: how the peculiar nature of British democracy helped bring about and prolong the current impasse, the curious, but profound misunderstanding between British and western Continental Europeans, and the surreal-ness of the British referendum campaign. He then summarised what he thinks the EU and the UK can now do about it.
To this we add our own observations about the medium-term consequences for the EU 27 and conclude that, with the approaching European Parliament elections, European citizens’ votes are more important now than they ever have been.
On the peculiar nature of British democracy, its unwritten constitution means that the Head of Government has no automatic mandate to negotiate on behalf of the country: her authority is granted her by the Parliament, which is sovereign. It has nothing to say about how the government should function in this kind of situation, where both main parties are bitterly divided on a key constitutional question.
Theresa May seems not to understand this.
Neither does she seem to understand the position of the EU.
Monsieur Lamassoure observes that Britain and the EU inevitably find it difficult to reach an understanding because, when talking about the EU, they are in effect talking about two different things.
Continental Europeans and the British have surprisingly little understanding of each other’s history. He cited the example of widespread Continental ignorance of the early twentieth century Irish war of independence and its civil war, which, together with Britain’s increasingly burdensome empire, distracted it from the looming crisis on the Continent, and compromised its participation in WWI. Britons, for their part, tend to see European history through the lens of Britain’s part in it.
Europeans may be astonished that even the most pro-European Britons routinely refer to the EU as a club, at most a sort of free-trade zone. For western Continental Europeans, the EU is much more: at the very minimum a project, and for many it is no less than a question of survival.
What is the difference between a club and a project? A club brings together people with a common interest, such as a sporting or cultural interest. Members can walk away from the club at any moment, generally without much inconvenience to anyone. A project, by contrast, demands commitment from its participants, who are working together to achieve a common goal. To quit the project, is effectively to abandon that commitment, leaving other members to cooperate to fill in the gap.
Britain is understandably proud of its role in vanquishing Fascism during WWII, when it suffered extensive bombing, including of civilians, and acute fear of invasion. But it struggles to appreciate the intensity of what those on the Continent went through. For Belgium, France, Czech, The Netherlands, Poland and others, invasion was not just an acute fear: it was the brutal reality, with large numbers of innocent civilians, many of them children, systematically deported and murdered.
Ironically, an early champion of the EU project was Churchill, then British prime minister. His, and its, aim was to make a repeat of this catastrophe unthinkable. By force of (good)-will and determination, and testimony of the trauma both suffered, Germany and France, traditionally arch-enemies, have not only made ploughshares of their swords, but now instinctively work together to achieve shared goals. Lamassoure emphasised this last point: peace was not enough: the EU means the determination of its members to work together.
From this initial question of survival, the EU is now ready to take its place in the world order. It is an on-going project and still a question of survival, but now it is not of Continental European civilisation, but of liberal democratic principles, both for the EU and for the world.
Monsieur Lamassoure remarked that the referendum campaign was surreal, not least for the apparent blindness of Remain campaigners to the anti-EU machine gaining traction outside the wealthy South and East of England. To say that this came as a surprise is disingenuous: it was no surprise to Nigel Farage, for example.
Also astonishing was the near silence of the finance industry, especially so since it is the engine of the British economy, albeit a very unpopular one since the global financial crisis. But it still represents over ten percent of the British economy and an even bigger share of its exports, employing hundreds of thousands of people, including multitudes of highly skilled Continental Europeans.
Neither the Remain campaign, the City of London, nor representatives of the finance industry pointed out that its current position as the world’s pre-eminent financial services centre was closely linked to its place in Europe, and that, should Britain leave the EU, it would still be obliged to abide by continuously changing EU rules and standards governing financial organisations that it would have no say in drafting. It would also be obliged to submit to the rulings of the European courts, which is regarded by many Britons as an insupportable loss of sovereignty.
Since the referendum, Theresa May continues wilfully to ignore financial services, even as she seems to show plenty of interest in secondary industry. She talks about governing for all Britons, but doesn’t seem to understand how much the economy depends on its mighty financial services industry.
Perhaps most surreal of all, neither the Brexit nor the Remain campaigns mentioned what the English call The Irish Question: the most intransigent of all which could, despite noisy denials on all sides, destabilise the island.
The paradox of the Irish Question is that every time you think you’ve got the answer, the Question changes.
What can happen now?
Assuming that the UK Parliament fails to agree, by 29 March, a withdrawal plan that is acceptable to the EU, Monsieur Lamassoure sees two possibilities:
The first is that the UK leaves the EU without a deal. This, he predicts, would be a catastrophe for the UK and Ireland and an inconvenience for Europe, which is already taking the precaution of preparing the necessary legislation.
Having poisoned EU politics for three years, the EU is beyond the limits of its patience with UK; and while nobody wants to see Britain shoot itself, the EU will not intervene to save it if it is determined to do so. He added that Brexiteers’ claim that Britain can always resort to the Commonwealth is delusional.
The second possibility is another referendum. Here, the question is the question, which Theresa May cannot, by herself, define, as she needs a majority in the Parliament to do so. The electorate might be presented with three possibilities, for example: leave the EU without a deal, accept the deal that has been negotiated or stay in the EU. There are two big problems with this. The first is that many voters will find the choices confusing, and return invalid ballots. The second is that the winning choice would still represent less, perhaps much less, than half the electorate, and so lack legitimacy. Bear in mind that, in 2016, even with only two possibilities, 37.5% of eligible voters (51.9% of a 72.2% turnout) counted as a “majority”.
The EU, for its part, may give her three months to hold a referendum, but their timetable is constrained by the European elections due on 23 to 26 May, with the new Parliament, due to take office on 1 July. Monsieur Macron proposes extending beyond 1 July, but Lamassoure thinks that is not realistic, as its not worth electing new MEPs if they’ll be there only a few weeks or months.
He emphasised that Europeans’ concern is its on-going relationship with the UK, rather than the terms of the divorce.
Perhaps surprisingly, Lamassoure did not mention at least five other consequences of Brexit for the EU.
The most striking is the unity and strength of purpose of the EU 27 in its determination to preserve the unity and integrity of the EU project.
Mary Dejevsky notes in her article in the Independent on the 1st February, 2019 that plenty of Europeans view the UK’s departure as potentially removing an obstacle to greater cohesion in the EU, which, she observes can be positive, by giving the EU more economic and political clout internationally. But it also will raise questions about how much national differences should be permitted. Would exemption from some European structures provide a “safety valve” that increases the resilience of the EU, or would it usher in a two-speed, even a multi-speed Europe, or a Europe à la carte? Ms Dejevsky notes that “new” Europeans are acutely sensitive about being treated as “second-class” citizens. If more conformity is favoured, will Poland, Denmark and Sweden come under new pressure to adopt the euro?
Together with eastern and central European counties, the UK was opposed to the formation of an EU military and defence structure. With the UK no longer there to argue against it, this idea has risen in the EU agenda.
As Brexit has changed the electoral calculus of populist parties on both left and right, the 2019 elections could deliver a quite different profile in the European Parliament, as both Europhile and Eurosceptic parties step up their campaigns. Voter turnout will be more important in May 2019 than ever before.
Another worry is the possibility of Brexit precipitating economic and political instability in the UK, a near neighbour and long-standing ally of the EU, with a large and open economy. The economic and social fallout would hardly be confined to the UK, and the EU needs to think about how it will respond to help a neighbour and contain the damage.
What should the EU do about this?
We identify four areas for urgent cooperation and action by the EU: immigration, the economy, soft power and communications.
The EU has already recognised the urgent need for a bloc-wide immigration and asylum policy, made only more so as the EU anticipates more Africans wanting to come to Europe. It will require a deft balancing act between Europe’s need for more working-age people, to manage immigration numbers, to invest in the communities that will receive them and to ensure the load is shared equitably by all EU members. It must also persuade the electorate of the long-term benefits of immigration.
Economically, the EU, taken together, is strong, with a well-balanced economy, skilled workforce, advanced infrastructure and strong institutions. It is also one of the most equal places on Earth. The common currency is both a strength, in its ability to facilitate trade between its members; and a glaring weakness, in that it perpetuates imbalances between members. For countries like Germany, the euro is too cheap relative to its trading partners, forcing it to rely too heavily on exports for its growth, while for countries like Italy and Greece, it is too expensive, making their workforces uncompetitive and encouraging both imports and unsustainable borrowing. Perhaps worst of all, misunderstanding of the causes and mechanisms of these imbalances breeds resentment among Eurozone members.
A solution must be found and deployed to allow disparate economies to converge.
With strong institutions and respect for the rule of law, the EU is a master in protecting its citizens. It is so effective that most Europeans don’t understand how well protected they are! Europe leads the world in high standards for consumer goods and services, technology, environment, food and medicine safety, data protection, police cooperation and investor protection. European regulatory standards are highly respected and are used as the benchmark around the world. Europe should do more of this and flaunt its enviable brand.
For all its achievements, Europe is facing a crisis of confidence among its citizens. Many have forgotten why its there!
The EU needs to remind citizens just how much they benefit, every day, from the rights, protections and conveniences they derive from EU membership. Freedom of movement, protection of human rights and working conditions, common standards of food and other product safety and technical products and services. It is actually doing something about tax evasion. It is also the leading champion of our planet.
Most of these achievements are invisible to most citizens, but some aren’t. For example infrastructure and research projects could sport a simple strapline or banner announcing that it is sponsored by the EU.
Another way the EU can remind its citizens of all these benefits is by harnessing its lively arts to demonstrate its freedom of expression (not least to question, criticise and mock the governments they elect), envied by billions of non-European human beings.
It is cool to be European.