Britain’s departure from the European Union has not encouraged a fresh approach to managing European affairs. There is no realisation that the dysfunctional character of the EU is felt as strongly in some other EU countries as in the one that decided to walk away on 23 June.
Increasingly, in the eyes not just of Eurosceptics, the EU is defined by the single currency which stands for wage reductions, social misery and the grim deflationary mix of contracting economies and rising debt. The sheer weight of political dogma and inertia has prevented the consideration of fresh departures.
Image management has shaped the EU’s response to a set of continuing crises. On 22 August, at a mini-summit on the Mediterranean island of Ventotene, the Italian Premier, Matteo Renzi, insisted that Brexit could not be allowed to drive the process of European integration into reverse.
He hosted President Hollande and Chancellor Merkel aboard an Italian aircraft carrier. It was meant to symbolise a resolute Europe intent on giving a higher profile to security matters. But for a generation the EU has been content to allow the USA to foot the bill for west European defence through NATO. There is no sign that will change despite challenges on its eastern borders as well as the vast exodus of economic migrants from Africa and the Middle East to Europe.
The melodramatic Renzi, a contrast to his un-sprightly Franco-German guests, declared that Europe is not the problem amid today’s myriad challenges but instead the solution without explaining why. The venue was symbolic since it had been where the ardent EU federalist Altiero Spinelli had been imprisoned under fascism. After 1945 he campaigned for a United States of Europe with its own armed forces and the Spinelli report of 1979 paved the way for Jacque Delors’s expansion of EU power when he headed the European Commission.
But nowadays the key-decision-making countries use EU institutions like the bureaucracy to advance particular national agendas or electoral timetables. There are unifying messages meant to promote solidarity and enthusiasm among cosmopolitan parts of the EU citizenry attuned to European integration. But they fail to resonate beyond the quangos, lobby groups and university sector, which benefit directly from EU funding.
Before the EU had assumed the power to override national parliaments and judiciaries, solidarity was expressed in terms of championing democracy over tyranny. The single currency as a means of speeding up European integration was only really embraced by insiders. Nor did the enlargement of the European Union from 15 members in 2004 to 28 in 2013 really capture the imagination of citizens.
The Lisbon Agenda, unfurled in 2003 and meant to make the EU ‘the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world’, in its turn soon became an object of cynical comment as a divided and rudderless regional bloc fell behind thrusting new nation states such as India and China.
As the pro-integration drive spluttered out after 2008, it became increasingly obvious that Germany ran the EU with a faltering France as its junior partner. Rituals are played out to show the greater Europe project is still on the road. Thus, within days of the UK referendum, the French and German foreign ministers published a paper indicating that political union was still on the agenda. As the American academic Jeffrey Gedmin observed, ‘instead of looking for sensible ways to walk back some of the centralisation and supranationalism, the current idea from Berlin and Paris is essentially to double down’.
EU decisions continue to be based on messy trade-offs between a core members and sectoral interests. Usually, the outcome is a set of mediocre policies that crumple as soon as buffeted by adverse events. Thus, over the last ten days, Brussels has been the scene of a black farce as leaked documents and awkward testimonies by senior bureaucrats showed how the car industry was able to exert ‘considerable pressure’ to ‘delay action’ on reducing toxic emissions by passenger vehicles or else make existing rules ineffective.
The opaque EU system has its clear favourites. The Iberian countries that joined the EU in 1985 are tools of the core Franco-German alliance. Thus it came as no huge surprise that the rules recently reinforced to ensure budgetary discipline in the Eurozone countries were allowed to lapse in their case. German Finance Minister, Wolfgang Schauble, lobbied several commissioners not to impose fines of 0.2 per cent of GDP on Spain and Portugal after they failed to reduce their fiscal deficit to 3 per cent of GDP.
For EU policy analyst Daniel Gros, the 27 July decision of the Commission to cancel the fines, offered a clear message: ‘rules can be bent when it is politically convenient’.
However, countries, individuals or groups outside the charmed circle of EU interests are treated differently. Sanctions are being imposed and threatened on Poland and Hungary for their defiance of EU norms on democratic arrangements and taking in immigrants. Ireland mulls its future in the EU as the EU Commission tries to control its fiscal affairs.
It is increasingly indefensible that the BBC refuses to acknowledge, never mind explore, these EU fault lines. Struggles between national and sectoral interests are fiercer than ever as elites find they can no longer dragoon electorates into line behind plainly unrealistic integration schemes.
Britain never belonged at the top table in Euroland and the voters worked out the systemic flaws of the EU as they passed by much of the political class. Other national electorates are likely to rebel especially when they hear the EU’s unsteady captain Jean-Claude Juncker proclaim that ‘borders are the worst invention ever made by politicians’.
Ideological rigidity sparked successive challenges to communist rule in Europe between 1950 and 1989. National elections are an awful distraction for EU power-holders. But nobody should be surprised if looming ones in France, Germany and elsewhere rock a despised union.
(Image: Erlebnis Europa)