While the direction of Theresa May’s new cabinet seems to be further in line with the concrete development of Brexit negotiations, notably with the appointment of Boris Johnson to Foreign Minister, the rest of Europe has been reflecting on the outcome of 23 June referendum. “Those who thought that a PM who had backed Remain (albeit reluctantly) would, over time, slide back on the EU verdict, were put right in an instant. As long as Theresa May is in charge Britain will be marching, head down against the wind, towards the door marked Exit”, reported The Telegraph last Monday 17 July. During the subsequent reunion of the European Council in Brussels and the discussion of its first declaration within the European Parliament, it a strong unity was evident in denying consultation to British representatives before a clear position was stated (and a clear counterpart, as Brexit campaigners quickly left the stage – see previous article).
Prime Minister May having already stated that her government will not trigger article 50 before late December this year, the European leaders have followed Angela Merkel’s approach, that is to say no negotiation of any sort before a clear and formal statement. The Kanzlerin has met French President François Hollande and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi in Berlin, right before the reunion of the 27 (United Kingdom excluded) of 28 June. The three leaders of founder member states decided during their meeting that a new initiative to re-launch the European Project was needed. But in which direction? Following the dynamics of the European integration, two options are possible, namely the enlargement of new members or the deepening of the cohesion among existing ones. Recent reports have explored the trend of citizens and politicians’ support to both possibilities, showing international and cross-country difference that offer a narrow window of opportunity in terms of feasibility of a re-launching initiative. A resolution on the result of the UK referendum, calling for the re-launch of EU integration and a revision of the Treaties has been voted during an extraordinary assembly called the 28 of June at the European Parliament in Brussels, approved with a 59% majority. A compromise between several Groups (Socialist&Democrats, Alliance of Liberals and Democrats of Europe, European People’s Party, Greens) was behind the motion, but the vote showed contrasts across nationalities and parties affiliation, as showed by recent report published by European think thank VoteWatch.
Furthermore, a research conducted in six Member States by IFOP on behalf of the Jean-Jaurès Foundation and the European Foundation for Progressive Studies concluded that the UK referendum results brought a new impulse to a pro-European stance among citizens. The survey took place online between 28 June and 6 July, with a sample of 1000 people in each of the following countries: Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Poland. Confronting the information provided by these reports and international press, the one and only option that appears feasible in the short term is that of a deepening European integration around core countries, as the support for an extended phenomenon is far from homogeneous. Moreover, it is clear that the (perceived) current state of the European Union discourages any proposal of access to candidate countries such as Ukraine and Turkey (the opinion being expressed before recent coup d’Etat in Istanbul).
Core Europe or the “Founding Fathers”: back to the sources
Four of the States chosen as sample by IFOP are founding members of the European Union since the birth of the European Communities in 1957, and already part of its forerunner, the European Coal and Steel Community (1951). The survey shows that in these countries the Brexit vote has triggered a growth of the pro-European feeling, almost 20% more in France and Germany of people declaring that “Be part of the Union is a positive fact”. Among the founders, the Germans are the most optimistic in foreseeing that “the Union will restart on new basis and strengthened by this crisis” (54%), followed by 41% of Belgians, 37% of French citizens, and, lastly, only 36% in Italy. The Italian pessimism is motivated by having heavily suffered the consequences of the financial and sovereign debt crisis as part of the Euro, and being, together with Greece, one of the States of the Union that currently suffers the most of the migration crisis. Moreover, 41% of the Italian sample adhered to the assumption that the “exit” of other members will entail the EU disappearance, against 32% in France and only 19% in Germany. Furthermore, Italians are the less attached to the Euro: only 57% of them declared to be against dismissal of the unique currency to reintroduce national one, against 67% for Germany, 71% for France and 75% for Belgium.
German pro-European stance deserves a closer look. In the national political discourse, a little wider opening has been opened with respect to pre-referendum rigidity. The main signal has been the commentary by German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, which called “reasonable” the demand for British financial services firms to maintain an access to the EU Single market, while his position a month ago was a total denial of such eventuality. Approaching next G20 meeting in China, Mr Schäuble adopted a more flexible attitude and, in line with the goal of containing the negative consequences of Brexit, stated that his government is willing to work with the UK, specifying that “In Germany we have had good experience with putting comments made during a campaign into the file for election campaign, and forgetting them on the day after the democratic decision has been made” (hinting at Boris Johnson comparison of the EU with Nazis). But when the “Re-launch” resolution was voted in Brussels, several MEPs belonging to Angela Merkel’s CDU opposed the group indication (EPP). In fact, they didn’t vote against a general proposal of closer cooperation, but specifically because the indication of “more Europe” regarded economic and monetary union. These areas have proved to be equally controversial for Swedish Members of the Moderate Party (EPP) and Dutch Members of Liberal Party (ALDE). The party of Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte has been the solely voting against the resolution: the Netherlands, one of the six founders, are in a delicate phase of the electoral cycle, where the European Union is playing a decisive role. Recent referendum on Dutch ratification of the EU-Ukraine agreement put mounting euroscepticism under the spotlight, while next general elections are due for spring 2017 and The Hague position towards European membership will much depend on the outcomes of the poll.
Around the core: peripheral countries and centrifugal tendencies
If core countries are clearly oriented towards the option of deepening integration among a bulk of member countries, the position of peripheral states is less edge-cut. This is reflected by a more cautious stance towards future negotiations with the UK and more flexible vision of enlargement.
As said before, among the countries surveyed by IFOP, Spain and Poland are non-founder members. Part of the then European Communities since 1985, Spain is currently in a difficult phase of transition: economically, the recession triggered by the financial crisis is still undermining the economy, with severe consequences on young job seekers prospects. The rollercoaster vicissitudes of Podemos entailed the end of two-party system, confronting traditional main parties to rethink their strategies and identities.
Poland became a member in 2004, having been negotiating with the EU since 1989. Currently under scrutiny by EU institutions over the controversy of respect of the rule of Law, Poland was issued a Recommendation by the European Commission the 27 of July, as the Commission “believes that there is a systemic threat”. If Spain took part to European integration after the fall of Franco’s authoritarian regime while Poland’s accession followed the fall of Communism, both countries adhered to the Union in order to anchor their young democracies to the European institutional framework and its enforcement of democracy and fundamental rights. This historical factor may still be a valuable component of the strong pro-European stance both countries proved in IFOP study, compared to EU core countries.
When asked if they would agree to a consultation similar to the UK referendum, a strong opposition rose up: 66% in Spain and 67% in Poland, a result similar only to Belgium (65%) but nearly 10 points higher than the other three countries. And in the eventuality of such a referendum, Poland shows the highest percentage of “Remainers” (84%) and the lowest of “exiters” (17%), while Spain qualifies for the second position among the six, with 67% pro-remain and 17% of pro-exit. If we consider that in a core country like Italy 31% would vote to exit and in France only the 53% would vote to remain, the position of peripheral countries should be carefully handled by decision makers in the future.
Regarding enlargement, Poland recorded a 55% favourable to Ukraine UE membership, and 58% favourable to the entry of one of the Balkans countries, while in France and Germany it is narrowed to less then a third of the population. Taking into account that the survey was conducted before the military golpe in Istanbul, Spanish and Polish citizens were less reticent to consider negotiations with Ankara and a privileged economic relation: 56% favourable in Poland and 59% in Spain, while in Germany, France and Italy the result was between 42 and 44%.
If we go back to consider the European Parliament resolution voted after the Brexit vote, several divisions in the European Parliament where reflected also by the position taken by peripheral countries. Even if there is no mention in the adopted text, the debate over the situation in Scotland and Northern Ireland, where the majority of the citizens voted in favour of remaining, was particularly controversial. On the Spanish side, the divide was reflected in the contrast between Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy (Popular Party) and the pro-independence Democratic Convergence of Catalonia. These last endorsed the GUE-NGL amendment asking for the permanence of Northern Ireland in the EU by “whatever arrangement necessary”, along with the Scottish National Party and the New Flemish Alliance and the majority of UKIP. The issue split several national parties, even the Spanish Popular Party: four Members voted in favour, while premier Rajoy strongly opposed this ‘defection’. After the European Council reunited the 28 of June, he told a press conference that: “If the United Kingdom leaves [the EU], so does Scotland. (..) Scotland has no competences to negotiate with the EU. The Spanish government rejects any negotiation with anyone other than the United Kingdom”.
Polish first minister Beata Szylo contributed to the debate over Scotland’s and Northern Ireland’s entitlement of having a say in Brexit negotiations. Basically following Rajoy’s position, Szylo affirmed that the Scottish question is an internal affair matter to manage at UK –and not at European – level. She insisted adding that: “Politicians, in Brussels too, should not use this topic in order to pursue their own goal”. Poland’s overall position towards UK is definitely more assertive, the main reason being the consistent number of Polish citizens living and working there. According with IFOP’s study, 54% of the surveyed stated that “Brexit is a worrying result”, with the highest ratio among the sample (73%) of people wishing a conciliating approach from the EU side. At the same time, Poland shows less confidence in a in a re-launch initiative: only seven to ten surveyed believe in such a possibility. The Polish government, together with the other Visegrad Group’s executives, alimented the controversy over European Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, blaming him for being unable to listen to Cameron’s government.
Who could be the leader of this initiative?
If the re-launch initiative could count on a stronger pro-European stance in peripheral Europe, core members’ leaders appear to be directed towards deepening and re-launch integration among a narrow ensemble of countries would certainly be easier than trying to lead all the voices inside the European Council and the EU Council towards a consistent change.
First of all, we are currently under a rotational presidency that is against major reforms. Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, currently in charge of the presidency of the EU Council, has assumed at the plenary of 6 July that “The EU must serve citizens, as the UK referendum has shown”, a vote that, in his opinion, has been determined by that lack of communication on the EU added value to citizens life. The lesson is to lessen the bureaucratic and elitist nature of the EU, trying to achieve a “smoother Union”, more careful and responsive to citizens’ critiques. Waiting for the 27 members European Council reunion in Bratislava, scheduled for September, Mr Fico has declared himself supportive of a new fuel to the European project, notably in finding a ‘new cooperative solution to the migrant crisis. In Bratislava “the ideas of each member state will be welcomed”, a proposal that clash with his support of a long term migration management solution and brings back to mind his insulting proposals towards Muslim migrants and his attempt to contest migration quotas in front of the European Court of Justice. Clearly the semester presidency initiatives will not be framing a truly deepening integration initiative.
Secondly, a true leadership is missing. A common pattern that emerged from IFOP survey is the lack of trust of citizens towards their own national leaders, excluding the German case. Less than 30% of the surveyed in France, Spain and Italy thinks that national politicians will endorse and commit to re-launch the European Project. In Germany 62% indicated that their leaders were the most suitable to put an end to the European crisis. While German hegemony perception has grown after the UK referendum, with the media pointing at Merkel as the new referee capable of reprimand Theresa May’s far-reaching requests, the prime minister doesn’t seem willing to cover the role of a ‘federalist’ re-launcher. As deeply analysed by philosopher and sociologist Jürgen Habermas in an interview released to Die Zeit, “Germany is a reluctant but insensitive and incapable hegemon that both uses and ignores the disturbed European balance of power at the same time. This provokes resentments, especially in other Eurozone countries”. Habermas highlighted how Merkel’s executive is not aiming at the deepening core Europe, even if promoting the “common front” stance towards UK: “When Frank-Walter Steinmeier (German foreign affairs minister) on the morning after Brexit seized the initiative with an invitation to the foreign ministers of the six founding states of the EU, Angela Merkel had sensed the danger straight away. This constellation could have suggested to some that the real wish was to reconstruct Europe out of its core after this series of tremors. To the contrary, she insisted on seeking first an agreement among the remaining 27 member states. Aware that a constructive agreement in this circle and with authoritarian nationalists such as Orban or Kaszinski is impossible, Angela Merkel wanted to kill any thought of further integration stone dead”.
What about European leaders? The presidents of the institutions, Jean-Claude Juncker (Commission), Donald Tusk (European Council) and Martin Schulz (European Parliament) can count upon the trust of Northern Europe, but the same is not valid for Southern and Eastern Members of the Union. For example, if in Germany the trust in the European leaders is at 57%, in Spain it plunges at less than 40%. After the results of the UK referendum were made public, critiques cumulated towards President of Commission Juncker, for what has been defined an “ambiguous inertia”. Juncker’s detractors plaid against his silence during the referendum campaign, bringing against his open declarations on the previous referendum in the Netherlands. Far-right group Europe of Nations and Freedom tabled a strong-worded amendment to the draft resolution on the re-launch of European integration, calling for Juncker’s resignation. Only a weak opposition backed the amendment, notably the Eurosceptic groups of EFDD and ENF, while the majority of Conservatives (ECR) abstained, along with the majority of UK Conservatives and Poland’s ‘Law and Justice’ governmental party. German MEP Manfred Weber (PPE) stated that “For two years the Commission directed by M. Juncker has accomplished a good job” and the silence of the president has been motivated by a general agreement of not interfering in the British decision. The president of the Socialist and Democrats Group at the European Parliament, Gianni Pittella, took the side of president Juncker, as “true representative of the communitarian method”. If 81% of European Parliament Members voted against Juncker’s resignation, indicating at least a certain legitimacy of his leadership, his eventual involvement in the supposed re-launch is doubtful. Already at the plenary session in Strasbourg on 5 July he affirmed that the line of action will be an enforcement of the ‘European agenda of reforms’, excluding the possibility, in the actual context, of starting consultations over Treaties’ reform.
To sum up, among Merkel’s aversion for a true deepening of existing policies such as monetary and economical union, and Juncker and Fico’s denial of the possibility to start reforming the Treaties, and a general no-go for enlargement, the prospect for the dramatic change needed are really weak. After the referendum, the IMF has downgraded Eurozone growth projections for this year, claiming that UK’s decision to leave the EU will dent the area’s economic recovery over the next two years. Quoting again Habermas’ reflection, “Compromises can only be reached if the partners are ready to compromise and that means their interests shouldn’t be too divergent. This modicum of convergence of interests is what one can at best expect from members of the Eurozone. The crisis story of the common currency, whose origins have been thoroughly analysed by experts, closely ties these countries together for several years – albeit in an asymmetrical manner. Therefore, the Eurozone would delimit the natural size of a future core Europe”. Will the urgency motivate Eurozone Members to new more cohesive European core?
Knowing that the past has taught us the opposite, in the short term new dynamics are foreseeable. A little step forward is waited for next September, thanks to good éntente among the main centrist parties in the European Parliament. A common action involving the Liberals, the Social-democrats and the Populars, as president of ALDE group Guy Verhofstadt promised a new report, signed by the European Parliament, to a step to the future capable of integrate the ideas of the founding fathers of European Integration. To conclude with his words: “If the Union doesn’t change, it will entail its death”.
For further information:
- European Commission, Press Release, “Rule of Law: Commission issues recommendation to Poland”, http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_IP-16-2643_en.htm
- Public Finance International, “IMF downgrades eurozone growth outlook post-Brexit”, http://www.publicfinanceinternational.org/news/2016/07/imf-downgrades-eurozone-growth-outlook-post-brexit
- VoteWatch Europe, “Power mapping: what politicians actually think about EU’s future”, http://www.feps-europe.eu/assets/b2d81712-076f-4294-a975-6bed38c35ab2/114026-rapport-fjj-feps-resultats-densemblepdf.pdf
- Le Monde, « Le Brexit provoque un regain du sentiment européen», http://www.lemonde.fr/europe/article/2016/07/15/le-brexit-provoque-un-regain-du-sentiment-europeen_4969720_3214.html
- Die Zeit, “The players resign”, http://www.zeit.de/kultur/2016-07/juergen-habermas-brexit-eu-crises-english