The result from France indicates that some extreme reactions against the EU are not sufficiently popular to get governments overthrown. EU leaders will take these results as confirmation of their success; they shouldn’t, the resentment continues to smoulder but a majority of Europeans appear to be rejecting xenophobia and extreme nationalism as solutions.
But that still leaves a hard core of nearly 11 million in France who reject the EU. To be fair, the governments of some other member states – and non-member states – are experiencing similar reactions. But national governments can be dismissed while the nascent government of the EU is not subject to such treatment.
Some EU sympathisers try to propose reforms that will straighten its path and allow it to assuage its hunger. However, a straighter and surer path to a European central government will not protect the EU from the steadily growing wrath of its citizens, more and more of whom feel that they are disdained and will continue to be ignored and neglected by a system that does not represent them or meet their expectations.
In the 26 April edition of the EU Observer website, three authors put together some suggestions of what the EU should do to reform itself, without challenging its underlying ideology. We agree that the EU might be better if its leaders followed this advice but we cannot believe that they will, or that a marginally reformed EU would satisfy its citizens better.
The authors use the Brexit negotiations as the context for their recommendations. In this post we’ll select and summarise their observations, with little comment because we think their views are generally sound. However, we remain unconvinced that this presents a route towards a solution of the underlying problem the Union faces.
“Even if both sides desire it, an orderly and cooperative Brexit is not a given. Brexit is the most complex deal ever attempted, and is being conducted inside an unprecedentedly short timescale.”
Not to mention an increasingly hostile atmosphere.
“The Brexit Ultras will do their best to disrupt the negotiations. The Ultras see “no deal” with the EU and reverting to WTO terms as the best outcome.. … They also want to break any links between UK and EU regulation on environmental, climate change, health and safety and labour issues, and have recently launched a public deregulation campaign.”
“They will try to render any concessions on the UK’s EU financial contributions politically toxic, while arguing for absolute immigration limits and against oversight by the European Court of Justice on any future or transitional agreements.”
This represents one extreme end of UK views, which the Prime Minister is not disavowing, as yet.
“The future of the UK is aligned with European values and cooperation, but that doesn’t mean that those who want a different future for UK-EU relations cannot win now.”
“Geography is still the largest determinant of economic relations. If the UK became a deregulatory state just offshore from the EU, it would chill progress on environmental, health and social standards, and empower similar deregulatory and nationalist forces across Europe.”
This is one of the fears on the EU side that prompts the hard line they are taking.
“But beyond this, the risk of negotiation failure cannot be sufficiently mitigated through setting clear negotiating instructions with the EU commission.”
“It is necessary to have a political strategy that includes European citizens and their representatives in the European Parliament.”
By “clear negotiating instructions” we assume the authors are referring to the Directives and Guidelines, which barely refer to the expectations of citizens and thus set the scene for a top-down agreement. This may satisfy the law-givers but will surely compound the flaws of the present Union and contribute to its eventual demise. Any reform that “includes European citizens” would be diluted by “their representatives in the European Parliament”, who have little real power and show even less responsibility as representatives. The authors do not say what an appropriate “political strategy” might look like, so this is not much of a recommendation for reform.
“Not only is it essential that the negotiations are as transparent and consultative as possible, they will require vibrant public debate across the EU and with UK citizens, parliamentarians and organisations over the terms of withdrawal and future cooperation. … The structure of the negotiations currently supported by the European Council and European Parliament does not explicitly set out a process of broad cooperation.”
And we do not expect to see anything different, despite this sound advice.
“Negotiations always lead to hard choices. There is a temptation to leave the complexities of Brexit to the European Commission’s negotiators to drive a hard technical bargain focused on short-term issues. But this would be a mistake for the EU.”
“Europe’s long term interests lie in being seen to deliver a positive and constructive relationship with the UK that benefits its citizens. That is also the wish of the majority of the British people.”
“Brexit is an opportunity to build a new EU approach to trade and investment negotiations. This must maximise transparency and accountability, and demonstrate how new deals support the interests of EU citizens on issues such as health, sustainability, quality public services and climate change.”
If this assumes ever closer union on such issues then we cannot expect such new deals to “support the interests of EU citizens”, which are too diverse to be supported by a one-size-fits-all Union.
“Achieving this may be less emotionally satisfying than extracting the maximum price from the UK’s departure, but it is the best foundation on which to build a Better Europe.”
(Sadly, the authors have swallowed the EU leaders’ sleight of hand in confounding the EU with Europe; trickery that is intended to hijack for the Union the good feelings that some people have towards Europe.)
Although set in the context of the forthcoming Brexit negotiations, these arguments can be regarded as indicative of more general failures of the EU to take account of wider issues, notably the expectations of its citizens. But the expectations of citizens do not revolve around transparency, environmental regulations, climate change, or even immigration. Citizens are, as we said above, fed up with being taken for granted and otherwise ignored. The recommendations will not change this, as disdain for its citizens is built into the ideology of the EU.
The authors are right that, on present showing, the Brexit negotiations will not bring about needed improvements to the EU; the agenda focuses on self-defence, where what is being defended is the current project, as it is and as it intends to remain.
We have argued consistently that the European Union is both driven and constrained by its founding ideology. It’s like a hungry mouse in a maze; it’s driven to seek its goal but can only follow its nose. The difference is that the walls of its maze are self-made.