The UK Referendum has been a shock to Brussels but the show must go on. Here’s how, according to two of the EU’s leaders.
The EU is regrouping after the shock of the British voters rejection. Recently Der Spiegel interviewed Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, and Martin Schulz, President of the European Parliament. The former led a group of EU presidents, which included the latter, in the preparation of the Five Presidents’ Report, titled Completing Europe’s Economic and Monetary Union, in June 2015. The authors, and the Remain camp in Britain, kept quiet about this report during the run-up to the British referendum, so it is interesting to see if the views represented there have changed. The interview by Der Spiegel clearly indicates that the Brexit vote has not changed the views of the EU’s leaders. Here are some indicators from the interview, a transcript of which is published here: http://www.spiegel.de/international/europe/interview-with-jean-claude-juncker-and-martin-schulz-a-1102110.html
SPIEGEL: The day after Brexit, Martin Schulz and Sigmar Gabriel, who is the head of Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD), to which Schulz belongs, presented plans for sweeping reform in the EU. These plans foresee turning the Commission into a proper European government … The plan would mean a significant loss of power for member state governments. What do you think of the plan?
Juncker: The proposal in and of itself is convincing, but it doesn’t suit the times. To implement it, the European treaties would have to be amended. Martin’s plan is a long-term project that cannot currently be implemented due to the mood on the continent. But where the community can achieve more on the basis of existing treaties, we should do so.
Schulz: I completely agree with Jean-Claude. I’m fully aware that my vision of a European bicameral parliament can’t be implemented tomorrow … There are forces in Europe that want to generally give national policy priority over a common European approach. We have to prevent this.
So, apart from the inconvenience of the unsuitable current political climate, including but not restricted to Brexit, the two EU leaders would press ahead with diminishing the nuisance of national governments by implementing a European government to keep the member states in order. However, they will do what they can under the present treaties. This is consistent with the five presidents’ report but not consistent with the expectations of the member states, let alone the wishes of their citizens.
Here are a few more revealing extracts from the interview:
Juncker: In the end, the British didn’t vote to leave because of the euro. They’re not even members of the currency union. I have another explanation: In its 43 years of EU membership, Britain has never been able to decide whether it wants to fully or only partially belong to the EU.
He confirms what we have said, that Britain has never been wholeheartedly committed to the EU project. On balance, voters are now committed to getting out of it. And, if given the opportunity, many voters in other EU countries would also opt out.
Schulz: Primary responsibility for Brexit lies with British conservatives, who took an entire continent hostage.
This is interesting in two respects: it confirms the widely held view that British voters should not have been asked, and it points to the problems Brexit gives the project. The phrase “entire continent” shows how they conflate the EU with Europe and “hostage” either has a meaning that should be clarified or is just an emotional gut reaction.
Schulz: It’s long been routine that member states blame the Commission for everything they can’t agree upon … If cooperation among governments were the superior concept for progress in Europe, I’d be onboard immediately. But the problem is that cooperation isn’t working.
This goes back to the original vision of Jean Monnet, that the nations of Europe have to be obliged by law to cooperate, in their own interest. Hence the need for a supra-national government.
Schulz: It’s not attractive at the moment to vouch for the European idea. I still do it, because I believe nothing would be better for our continent. Complementing the nation-state as it reaches its limits amid globalization: That is what Europe must offer.
Schulz uses the softly acceptable term “Complementing” rather than say what he clearly means, from earlier responses, that nation states must be managed from above. But what does he mean by the nation-state reaching its limits? And does he apply this to nations outside Europe or does he think that only European states are reaching their limits? He doesn’t say, but he probably thinks, along with the elites of many states, that democracy has reached its limits and has to be superseded by something more effective. Of course, saying this out loud would not improve the mood of electorates across the EU.
This EU has no future
At root the question is: “How long can the selected and elected rulers ignore the basic wishes of the people?”
Democracy is a muddle and a mess. Giving votes to people who understand too little of the complexities of nations, societies and politics (that is, nearly all of us) is asking for trouble. We all know this; those in charge know it best. What we don’t know is the answer to the ‘how long’ part of the question. We do know from history that every alternative to democracy has failed eventually. Sometimes the failure was bloody, sometimes it was benign; always it will be disruptive.
The EU is yet another attempt at an alternative to democracy. The EU was designed to prevent the muddle and mess that is caused by giving people the vote. A crucial design weakness – deliberate but critically vulnerable – was to make the project irreversible.
Progress towards unification has sometimes been quick and sometimes slow but always it is in the same direction. Understandably, few of the panjandrums want to discuss the implications of this. But the implication is that the EU will fail. The only surprise is that we are so desperate to hide from the prospect of failure.
The signs are clear across Europe that the EU may be in the early stages of a disruptive break up. The question now is whether the break up will be bloody or benign. Britain has chosen to pre-empt the break up by taking a benign route out. OK, it doesn’t feel benign to those who voted to stay in or to those, selected and elected, who run the project. The disruption is severe and will get worse before it gets better. But no one died.
We need to acknowledge that the EU cannot be made to work as it is and get down to the hard graft of designing a community that, above all, respects the wishes and needs of its peoples.