The fear in Brussels: Does the EU have a future without Britain?

Within the next few weeks, the serious business begins of Britain exiting the European Union. By then, the British Parliament will have passed the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill 2016-2017 and Her Majesty’s Government will have officially notified the European Council of its intention to leave. Under Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union, the parties then have two years to negotiate withdrawal arrangements and a “framework” for Britain’s future relationship with the EU, after which British membership ends automatically unless the parties decide otherwise.

There is a great deal at stake in the negotiations. In the first place, Britain’s withdrawal from the EU would constitute nothing less than that country’s re-emergence as a fully autonomous world power. Henceforth British foreign and defence policy would be unfettered by any Europe-first loyalties, consultative requirements, or legal constraints. In foreign capitals and in places like NATO and the UN, Britain would speak and act and lead according to its own lights. The European Union, for its part, would face an existential crisis. Would others follow the UK’s example and cause the unravelling of the great post-war project to unite Europe? Without Britain, would further unification of the states of Europe be possible or desirable? What could take its place? How would that affect the international balance of power and the way the world makes its decisions?

Why breaking up is hard to do

For the parties directly involved in Brexit, there are a host of political, economic, social and financial issues to be dealt with. To manage the operation, the UK government has appointed a special Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union (David Davis) and established a Department for Exiting the European Union. No question Britain is leaving. In Brussels, the EU is also gearing up, but not apparently with the same determination to see the negotiations through to a successful conclusion. The President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, has not only warned that the negotiations will be “very, very, very difficult” (three veries) but also indicated that he doesn’t believe the negotiations can be completed within the two-year timeframe. This is not a prospect, it seems, that distresses him unduly. Juncker has made it plain he doesn’t like the whole idea of Britain leaving and would prefer to drag out the negotiations to the point where Britain abandons the venture. Prime Minister Theresa May, however, is not for turning. As she told Parliament, she would rather have no deal than a bad one for Britain.

So what’s going on here? Clearly some pre-negotiation posturing. But there’s also an animus between the two sides that is going to colour the talks.  Juncker doesn’t much like May or the Brits generally, and they don’t much like him.

From Juncker’s perspective, he has spent most of his professional life on the “European project” and resents the Brits threatening to ruin it.

Juncker was Prime Minister of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg for 18 years, a micro-country with no future except in a united Europe. Luxembourg has a population of just 576,000 on 2,586  sq. kms — Toronto, in contrast, has a population of 2.6 million on 5,905 sq. kms. But it is one of three “capitals of united Europe”, with a dozen or so EU institutions resident there along with 9,500 EU officials.

Next, Juncker was the head of the Eurogroup of finance ministers for eight years and a driving force behind the expansion of the Eurozone. Since 2014, he has been the President of the European Commission, the EU’s bureaucracy. The very model of a modern major Eurocrat. Juncker especially resents the effort Britain made to deny him the top EU job. Under PM David Cameron, the UK was one of two countries (the other was Hungary) which voted against Juncker’s selection. In the past, national governments had put forward candidates for the presidency of the European Commission and reached agreement by consensus. But under new rules, political parties in the European Parliament now nominate the candidates and governments choose from among them by majority vote. If Europeans wonder why the Brits don’t like Juncker, or the EU for that matter, they need look no further than the EU having engineered the appointment of its most senior civil servant over the express objections of one of the three most important of its member states.

And why don’t the Brits like Juncker? First, because he has been adamantly opposed over the years to Britain’s efforts to secure EU accommodations which would have mitigated anti-EU feelings in the UK — and would probably have tipped the balance against Brexit. Second, because Juncker’s imperious personality has grated on British political leaders used to more deference from an unelected official. And third, because there are skeletons in Juncker’s closet. Just months after the European Parliament confirmed him in office as President of the Commission, parliamentarians debated a censure motion against him. The motion, which was eventually defeated, accused Juncker of having helped to turn Luxembourg into a European centre of corporate tax avoidance.

Five futures

Notwithstanding the heated character of the early exchanges between the parties — some in the EU have declared Britain should be required to continue contributing to the EU budget until 2020, to the tune of some 60 billion euros — cooler heads are putting together options for an EU of 27 members not 28. Early in March, Juncker signed off on an EU white paper which outlines five possible futures without the offshore islanders. Following a summer of public debate about these options, Juncker has pronounced that “I will take these ideas forward and give my personal views on the future of Europe in my State of the Union speech in September 2017”.

The five futures are all variations on the theme of 27 members moving “forward together as a Union”.

  • Scenario 1 is entitled Carrying On. The EU sticks to its current course of “strengthening the single market”, improving the functioning of the single currency, pursuing new trade agreements, deepening defence cooperation (on March 6 ministers unanimously agreed to set up a Military Planning and Conduct Capability office to coordinate military training), and “speaking with one voice” on foreign policy.
  • Under Scenario 2, the EU would scale back its ambitions, assume that the “EU27 cannot agree to do more in many policy areas”, and focus mainly on the operation of the single European market particularly the free movement of capital and goods. Modest as the “scaling back” would be, the EU predicts dire consequences. Differences would persist or increase in member states’ consumer, social and environmental standards, risking a “race to the bottom”. It would also “put at risk the integrity of the single currency and its capacity to respond to a new financial crisis”. Moreover, the EU would likely no longer be able to agree on common positions on issues such as “climate change, fighting tax evasion, harnessing globalisation and promoting international trade”.
  • Scenario 3 combines proceeding along current lines and allowing groups of member states (“coalitions of the willing”) to do more together in specific policy areas. Among these could be defence matters such as joint procurement and enhanced readiness for joint missions abroad, cooperation between police forces and intelligence services, and fighting organized crime. They could also “go further in creating a common justice area in civil matters”, harmonizing tax regimes, and relations with third countries.
  • Scenario 4 is described as Doing less more efficiently. What this amounts to is that the EU “stops acting or does less in domains where it is perceived as having more limited added value or as being unable to deliver on promises”. The list includes regional development, public health, and “parts of employment and social policy not directly related to the functioning of the single market”. But, as it happens, the EU would also do more. It would “step up” its work in fields such as “innovation, trade, security, migration, the management of borders and defence”. It would also develop “new rules and enforcement tools to deepen the single market in key new areas (and) decide quickly to negotiate and conclude trade deals”.
  • Finally, Scenario 5 provides for Doing much more together, i.e. “shar(ing) more power, resources and decision-making across the board”. In brief, “cooperation between all member States goes further than ever before in all domains”. Examples would include Europe speaking and acting “as one” in trade and being “represented  by one seat in most international fora”. That seat, naturally, would be filled by officials of the Commission. Other examples: a European Defence Union “in full complementary with NATO” (sure), a joint approach on migration, and completion of the single market in the fields of energy, digital and services.

True to the worst impulses of their profession, every option the EU’s bureaucrats have contrived is one they can live with — while four of the five call for an expansion of their writ. One wonders whether the explanation is bureaucratic inertia, ignorance of the popular discontent with EU overreach which is now palpable in a great many member states including France and Germany, or plain arrogance. There are probably elements of all three in play. The overiding concern, however, is likely fear — fear that the EU monolith will begin to crumble once Britain goes.

The integration of Europe has been a work in progress since 1957, when the Treaty of Rome established the European Economic Community. On 25 March 2017, member states will be marking the 60th anniversary of that treaty. On that date, Juncker says, they will “stand united in peace and friendship in Rome”. Not exactly.

____________________

Feature illustration: Jean-Claude Juncker (courtesy: The Sun)

Paul H. Chapin

Paul Chapin is Executive Editor of The Vimy Report. He was formerly director-general for international security at Foreign Affairs and head of the political section of the Canadian Embassy in Washington. He can be reached at pchapin@rogers.com.

Comments are closed.