Where to Now for Europe and the EU?
WHERE TO NOW FOR EUROPE AND THE EU? This, not divorce deals with the UK, is the issue that should be uppermost in the minds of Europe’s leaders.
Europe and the EU often represent two very different things and provoke divergent responses in the minds and hearts of Europeans.
Significant swathes of Europe's population, while perhaps proud to be European, are apparently unhappy with the direction being taken by the European Union.
Studies show that in normally Europhile nations like Denmark, France and to a slightly lesser degree Germany and Sweden, unusually high proportions of populations are dissatisfied.
In Denmark, 53 percent voted 'no' last year to a proposal that would have removed their existing EU opt-outs. The Danes obviously do not believe that the EU's interests are necessarily synonymous with their own.
In the Netherlands recently, 54 percent of people demanded a national referendum similar to the one that was then pending in the UK. Polls suggest that 48 percent would vote to leave and 45 percent to remain in the EU.
Spain registers 49 percent unhappy with the European Union and in France, traditionally one of the EU's traditional heartlands, only 38 percent say they are happy with the EU. In Italy, 39 percent are unhappy with the EU.
A 2016 multi-national study by the Pew Research Centre reports that “a median of just 51 percent across 10 EU countries surveyed have a favourable view of the European Union. A median of 42 percent in these 10 nations want more power returned to their national capitals, while only 19 percent favour giving Brussels more power.”
Perhaps the most telling of Pew’s findings is that only 27 percent of the people surveyed favour the status quo.
It is too early to tell exactly what difference the Brexit decision in the UK might have on these wider pubic views within the EU. We can, however, make an educated guess as to how national governments might respond.
The Dutch will likely want the UK to stay closely linked with the single market. They are suspicious of any plans for a more integrated and politically united EU. The Danish leadership is also sceptical of ever closer political ties with the EU. The same is true in Sweden, which like the UK and Denmark rests outside the eurozone and where the Swedish Democrats recently demanded a referendum.
Poland will probably want to see Britain treated on friendly terms, if only to protect the interests of Poles living in the UK. For its part, Germany will be very nervous about the economic impact a disorderly British exit could have on the eurozone economy.
On the other side of the ledger, the present French government, despite national unrest over the EU, will toe its traditional line. It was President Charles de Gaulle who kept the UK out of the Common Market throughout the 60s. His successors remain committed to ever closer political union and have always been suspicious of the UK’s intentions within the Union.
Italy will follow France’s lead and Spain will hope that harsh divorce proceedings will push Gibraltar back under its control.
As a speaker and founder of several Europe-wide leadership networks, I've had the great privilege of working all over Europe for the past 25 years. Originally from Australia, I have lived in two regions of Europe for 22 of those years.
I've met thousands of Europeans, from all points of the regional compass. I believe that the vast majority of those people would happily think of themselves as Europeans.
They are rightly proud of their shared heritage – though well aware of the major blemishes on Europe’s often bloody history. They appreciate the impact the European region collectively has in international culture, innovation, education, science, economics and politics.
However, in my experience, the EU is not seen by Europeans as totally synonymous with Europe itself. Many Europeans are grateful for the opportunities the Union and its predecessor the EEC have afforded in terms of trade, travel, cultural dialogue, relatively free movement and, above all, peace.
However, the EU is often viewed on the continent, in all but Europe’s more hubristic moments, as something of a necessary evil.
Its myriad rules are viewed as things to be endured for the sake of harmony; the arrogance of some of its behaviour to be waved away because working together is far better than fighting each other. Today, though, patience with the EU is running thin in parts of Europe that have previously given it the largest support.
Much of this current feeling is linked to the handling of the Euro crisis and Europe's perceived collective failure to respond adequately and quickly to the mass migration problem.
Some of the discontent, however, is tied to more philosophical issues such as the gradual but increasingly obvious federalisation of the EU, accompanied by perceived reductions in the political and economic sovereignty of members states.
The largely unelected people at the top of the EU push on with this pet federal project with an often breathtaking arrogance and petulance.
Their assumption seems to be that they, as part of a consecrated elite – the new prelates of secular Europe – have cornered the market on wisdom.
They listen only to themselves and to others who agree with them. This may partly be attributed to human nature, but leaders at this level are expected to rise above their lower angels.
The same might be said of much of the top political class within the EU’s member states. Indeed, the UK’s Brexit vote has been interpreted here as partly a ballot against elitism in national politics, on both sides of the ideological divide.
I wrote last week about the new brand of leadership the UK needs if it is to flourish going forward. How the UK finds its way out of its present political morass is anyone’s guess, but I have no doubt that it eventually will. Britain has too long a history of stable democracy to wind up with long-term instability.
The mainly English and Welsh regions which voted for Brexit have struggled to make their voices heard on national and European issues because they are a long way from the Westminster circle.
With or without their own national referenda, the best possible outcome of the Brexit vote for other EU members may be a radical rethink on the continent's future and the possible emergence of a new type of pan-European union.
Eurosceptic feelings in other regions will only intensify if EU institutions are seen to simply dig in their collective heels, carrying on much as before.
If they appear to believe that they have nothing to learn from the departure of the EU’s second biggest financial contributor, and the world’s fifth largest economy – the EU’s capacity to look down its collective nose will be interpreted, rightly, as myopia.
Were it to emerge, this new European entity might function mainly as a trading bloc, as was the case in the earliest forms of the EEC. It would need to recognise the primacy of nation-states in such matters as political and legal sovereignty and setting limits on normal migration. Shared sovereignty would continue to exist at some level, but in a much more tightly constrained EU.
It might at the same time provide a vital platform for willing collaboration on pressing regional and global problems such as mass migration crises and climate change. On security, it would support and strengthen the existing alliances between national agencies, but all talk of establishing a European army or security force would be scrapped.
In short, this new entity would need to see itself as a servant of nation states, rather than their master. Yes, there is often a fine line between making treaties robust enough to be meaningful and so strong that they cease to be treaties and become supranational entities in and of themselves.
However, Europe must learn that its greatest strength is unity with diversity - not a false uniformity forced on it from above.
The Euro crisis revealed long ignored but deeply rooted north-south cultural differences on issues like taxation, debt reduction, nepotism and retirement. The EU, in its haste to push through an agenda of eventual federalisation, established a common currency which only ever papered over these cultural cracks.
Even now, some former advocates of the Euro question its future stability as a currency, because of those still unaddressed cultural gaps.
Whether Britain would apply to be part of such a new entity – whether it would even be invited – remains to be seen.
However, I daresay that only a very small minority of the Brits who cast a vote on June 23 were casting a vote for or against Europe itself. They were voting on how they saw their future within the currently constituted European Union.
I think the past has shown and the future will further reveal that, outside of a small band of dyed-in-the-wool cultural isolationists – who exist in every nation – Britain remains friendly to Europe. The current EU, as the Brexit vote shows, is another matter entirely.