JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs
July 8th, 2016
When the dust of history settles, the moment angry Britons voted to quit the European Union will stand out as the moment that saved the 28-nation project.
Two weeks after the referendum produced a 52 per cent majority in favour of Brexit, the chaotic aftermath in British politics is beginning to settle down. The resignation of Conservative leader, Prime Minister David Cameron, and the hasty running for cover of the two men most responsible for the Brexit support, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, has cleaned the political slate.
A contest for a new Tory leader and prime minister is under way. Conservative Party members will decide by early September between Home Secretary Theresa May and Energy Minister Andrea Leadsom. May is the favourite, and she would come to the leadership with a record of favouring Britain staying in the EU, but having refrained from getting involved in the nastiness of the campaign.
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In all likelihood she, or Leadsom if that’s the way the wheel turns, would want to fight and win an election to get a popular mandate before turning to the negotiations with Europe. The opposition Labour Party, led by the deeply unpopular Jeremy Corbyn, is in such internal turmoil that it seems unlikely to be able to mount a serious challenge to the Tories.
But while this is playing out in Britain, the world on the other side of the Channel has not been frozen in aspic. The first reaction to the Brexit result among the most devoted advocates of ever deeper and wider European integration was anger and spite. Pompous nabobs like European Commission President Jean-Claude Junker – the epitome of everything that is wrong with the way the EU is currently staffed and works – hit out with spite and bile. He drummed his little feet and demanded that Britain immediately start the Brexit process by invoking Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which would trigger a two-year period of negotiations to decide the terms of Britain’s withdrawal and its future relationship with the EU.
Elected European leaders, however, have a more sanguine view of the Brexit vote and its implications for all of them. “There is no need to be nasty,” said German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who when all is said and done is the only EU leader who counts. “We must work together to achieve the right outcome.”
It is deciding what that right outcome is that will now consume European leaders. Brexit is concentrating the minds like the prospect of being hanged in the morning. It has taken the shock of losing the EU’s second largest economy and crucial member of the union’s political and security apparatus to finally clarify the choices and, hopefully, shunt aside the organization’s passion for obfuscation and prevarication.
The basic choice is reasonably clear. Does the EU press ahead and even accelerate integration by Brussels taking power over sectors like foreign and security policy? Or should the EU listen to what the majority of British voters said about being detached from the undemocratic tyranny of Brussels Eurocrats, feeling powerless in the face of economically and culturally disruptive integration, and wanting powers returned to their national government?
The EU and its economic community forebears put in place after the Second World War have always had an ideological, indeed, messianic drive. The idea was and is that economic and, more recently, political integration will make impossible continuation of the saga of wars between nations that dogged Europe for centuries.
For the true believers of this mission — the half-crazed evangelicals – there is only one response to any setback. It is to pursue integration with ever more haste and fervour.
It is this passion that gave birth to the common currency, the euro, used by 19 of the 28 EU members. It made absolutely no sense to try to impose a common currency on economies as disparate as Germany and Greece – or, in general, those across the northern and southern politico-economic divide. It removed the ability of governments to manage the basic levers of their economies such as interest rates and money supply, with the predictable results of the crises in Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Ireland.
But the creation of the euro was a political move more than an economic one, as was the introduction of the free movement of labour in the Treaty of Maastricht in 1992. This did not become a real concern until the accession to the EU of several of the old East Bloc satellites of the Soviet Union in 2004. With utterly predictable good sense, the liberated Eastern Europeans hopped on trains, buses and planes for the EU country that offered them the best opportunities. Hence, the small British country town of Boston in Lincolnshire has become an outpost of Poland.
The feeling among many EU citizens that they no longer have any say about their neighbours and neighbourhoods came to an explosive crisis with the arrival of millions of refugees from the Middle East and Africa in the last two years.
The impulse to meet obstacles by intensifying the EU project remains strong among true believers, however. There was evidence of this in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote on June 23. The foreign ministers of France and Germany, Jean-Marc Ayrault and Frank-Walter Steinmeier, met and drew up a nine-page memorandum. A copy of the memo was leaked to Poland’s TVN broadcaster, which promptly aired the contents.
The paper is titled “A Strong Europe in a World of Uncertainties,” and one of the key passages says: “Germany and France have a responsibility to strengthen solidarity and cohesion within the European Union” despite “different degrees of ambition towards further integration among the member states.”
Neither minister, it must be said, speaks for his leader or any other of the EU heads of government. Most government leaders are well aware that further integration is deeply unpopular among Europe’s citizens. A Pew Global Attitudes Survey from early June shows that Britons are far from alone or unique in their dislike of the EU now and anxiety about the prospects of “ever closer union.”
In all major EU member states voters either think integration has already gone too far or are vehemently opposed to “ever closer union.” In Sweden, for example, 47 per cent want sovereign powers returned from Brussels to Stockholm and 38 per cent think integration has gone far enough. In the Netherlands 44 per cent want powers returned, in Germany it’s 43 per cent and in France 39 per cent. Support for further integration is in a minority – often a very small minority – everywhere.
As they look at the fall-out from Brexit across the EU, leaders are carefully watching public support for their own Eurosceptic political parties. The National Front in France, Germany’s AfD, Italy’s Five Star Movement, the True Finns, the Swedish Democrats, the People’s Party of Freedom and Democracy in Holland are all feeling a gust of wind under their wings from the Brexit slipstream.
Brexit has set the EU political barometer for changing weather. Brussels and the EU potentates ought now to be acutely aware that they continue to avoid the creation of a more democratic, looser, trade-focussed union at their peril. When Britain does come to the negotiating table and the process of drawing up a new relationship begins, the context will be much more broad than just London’s future relationship with Brussels. With any luck it will involve a stringent redefinition of the nature of the EU itself.
Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2016
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Jonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. He is the author of “Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan,” and has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has travelled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America.
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