Don’t believe Brussels speaks with one voice – the EU is unified only in name

Don’t believe Brussels speaks with one voice – the EU is unified only in name

So many commentators will not tire of pointing out that Brexit is a fatal mistake and that national humiliation awaits Britain. They lament that a year after the referendum, the British Government has still not presented a clear roadmap of the negotiations and their outcome. They portrayed the first meeting between the negotiators as a “humiliating defeat” for Britain because David Davis was “forced” to accept the EU’s Brexit timetable. Their coup de grâce argument is that the remaining 27 member states have forged a unanimous stance: the UK cannot be allowed to cherry-pick and, most of all, cannot be seen to be better off outside the Union than inside. Britain, this wayward country, all of a sudden alone in deep seas, faces the fortress of a unified block and must realise that the EU calls the shots.

These arguments are unfounded.

It is quite normal that there is no clear path for the negotiations and no clear picture of the final deal. We are all in uncharted waters; after all, this is the first time a country is leaving the EU. More importantly, hardly anybody foresaw that this could happen at all. Both sides are unprepared and have to find the way to walk together as the negotiations proceed. This process will entail mutual discoveries, shocks and surprises, a great deal of back and forth, and one day’s or even one month’s worth of give-and-take will not reveal much of the power relations, just as much as one quarter’s PMI figure does not give much of a clue about the long-term trend of the economy. The negotiations will no doubt be tortuous and controversial because while the parties’ commercial interests may be the same, their political imperatives are strikingly different.

The most mistaken argument of the doomsday scenario is the pre-supposed unity of the EU27.

The much-touted harmony and Macron-induced enthusiasm can hardly veil the fact that the EU continues to face the danger of disintegration. The reason is simple: it is not an entity based on genuinely shared mutual interests or even values, but a complex system of subordination and regional interests. The Union is a lofty idea but was built on massive compromises, as is inevitable with the uneasy conglomerate of 28 nation states with widely different economic structures and levels of development, history and tradition, temperament and geopolitical situation. The EU’s ideologues hoped that these differences would melt away with ever closer integration enforced by the common currency and de rigeur melting pot theory. After all, if the US could do it, why couldn’t Europe?

They ignored the blindingly obvious: the EU is not a country of immigrants all wishing to amalgamate in one superstate but a pragmatic alliance of nation states. There may be a sense of cultural kinship, but that is certainly not enough to uphold unity in difficult times.

The 2008 financial meltdown and subsequent sovereign debt crisis and then the 2015 migrant crisis demonstrated that the EU is unified only in name. In reality, it is made up of three quite different regions: the North, the South and the East. Grave economic imbalances and conflicting political interests among these regions are tearing the EU apart. The euro, while it did not originally create them, has certainly aggravated the imbalances between the Northern core and the Southern periphery, the most extreme example being Greece, whose treatment by the EU exacerbated its economic malaise and also put paid to the idea of “European solidarity”.

President Macron has put Germany on the spot, saying that “German competitiveness is partly due to the malfunction of the eurozone and the weakness of other economies.” Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), while sharing some of the characteristics of the Mediterranean rim, is a different kind of periphery, which the economic literature tends to call “dependent market economies”. These economic imbalances are not going away because that would require a radical change in the underlying economic structure; either a selective abandonment of the euro for the Southern rim and a bespoke development policy for CEE, or forced federalisation with significant German financial support for the rest of the EU. There is little political will for either.

This leads us to the ever more pressing political conflicts. Given the region’s history and the conditions of its accession, political discomfort with the EU has always been more pronounced in CEE than in the Southern periphery. This is now changing somewhat as persistent economic difficulties and the migrant crisis are heightening political tensions there as well. When Italy – under pressure again this summer with record waves of immigrants arriving on its shores – asked France and Spain to open up their ports to share the burden, it was given a polite but definite “no”. Austria threatened to send troops to the Italian border to stop migrants from crossing over. The Il Giornale article under the rather blunt headline of “L’Europa è una cagata pazzesca…” (Europe is a mad s**t…) expressed the views of more than just a few Italians.

Demonstrating more European solidarity, Italy then turns around wagging fingers at CEE countries for not helping and calls for cuts to their EU funding. It is happily joined by France, whose President Macron refuses to open the port of Marseille but lectures CEE on “democratic values” and accuses them of freeloading on the EU. The EU then starts infringement procedures against the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland for disobeying Brussels’ orders to accept migrant quotas against the explicit will of their own citizens.

The Visegrád 4 alliance jointly refuses the quota system and forced resettlement. These countries, long deprived of independence under Soviet occupation, have drawn the red line here: they will not accept this blatant violation of their sovereignty. A poll conducted in Poland in June concluded that a majority of Poles are willing to leave the EU if staying means taking in migrants.

There is no common EU strategy, because there are no shared interests and values. Brussels’ answer to Brexit to foist “more Europe” on member states may easily be counterproductive. The “New Pact for Europe” project provides an eye-opening read. Sponsored by a number of liberal pro-EU organisations such as the Open Society Initiative for Europe, it seeks a joint European response to the “multiple crises threatening the European project”. Acknowledging that “the European Union currently seems incapable of moving forward” because “national agendas prevail and efforts to identify common interests, and thus common solutions to tackle these challenges together, appear to be taking a back seat”, it warns that “Europe is faced with a crisis of meaning and identity, and a dangerous rift between member states”. This bodes ill for the EU; it is possible to find solutions to the specific problems of a union of the willing but hard to find the missing “meaning and identity” for a union of the unwilling.

Brexit and the idea of sovereignty it symbolises is a mighty catalyst for all member states’ citizens to rethink their idea of Europe and national sovereignty. It is far from certain who will be calling the shots.