Articles - March 2017

The European Union

Picking Up the Pieces in Brussels
By Roland Flamini

At the European Union leadership summit in Malta in February, the 28 leaders became 27 when British Prime Minister Theresa May left the conference while her EU colleagues discussed how to handle Brexit. The actual process of disengagement, however, will be more complex and more permanent than one summit participant temporarily quitting the room.

Once the British government formally applies for withdrawal in March or April under Article 50 of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty, negotiations are expected to take 15 months. And what then? Can the EU pick up the pieces and move on? Or will this be the beginning of the end for the ambitious, high minded political initiative designed to ensure Europe’s peace and prosperity launched with the Treaty of Rome, which celebrates its 60th anniversary this year?

The answer depends on how successfully the EU can craft its post-Brexit existence. Federica Mogherini, EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, implied in Malta that Brexit has proved the catalyst to force the union to identify its faults and introduce badly needed reform in its institutions.

“People are very critical of the European Union as it works today -- or better, as it doesn’t work today,” Guy Verhofstadt, the former Belgian prime minister said at Chatham House recently. “And they are right. It doesn’t work – not concerning the immigration laws, not concerning the refugees, not geopolitically, and not concerning the fallout from the financial crisis.” Verhofstadt, who is the designated Euro parliamentarian negotiator at the forthcoming Brexit talks, said the EU needs to put forward “a vision of the world of tomorrow.”

Theresa May has made it reasonably clear that the United Kingdom will be seeking a hard exit rather than some form of partial association with the EU. And that – say EU officials – will form the basis of the talks: the UK dropping out of the European Single Market, forsaking the European Court of Justice, and bidding farewell to the Schengen Agreement guaranteeing freedom of movement throughout the EU to all its 500 million citizens. Blocking East European immigrants from British shores struck a strong responsive chord among voters in the 2016 Brexit referendum.

Getting 27 separate countries to agree on a common vision is the challenge facing any attempt to reform the European Union. But after the initial shock of the Brexit result, European officials are coming round to the view that picking up the pieces is more important to the EU than negotiating the UK’s exit.

Matteo Garavoglia, a Europe expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington, wrote recently that the EU should seize the opportunity to introduce changes the United Kingdom had successfully blocked over the years, including a European military, and shared European representation in international institutions, and measures towards what he calls “a dynamic, yet inclusive social-market economic model.” Thus the European Union would “achieve economies of scale, save money and resources on possible duplications, boost its global standing and income.”

But the Brexit negotiations will unfold against a background of key elections in several EU countries (notably Germany, the Netherlands, France, and Hungary) where populist nationalist parties campaign on the promise of reducing EU control, not increasing it, and restoring sovereignty lost to the EU as the price of membership, further raising the specter of referendum fever spreading to more countries.

Already, authoritarian, illiberal governments currently triumphing in Eastern Europe, for example, defy directives from Brussels and like to give the impression of having one foot out the door -- but in reality have economies that would find survival difficult, if not impossible, without the EU’s financial support. In western Europe, Euroskeptics inveigh against a Brussels bureaucracy run amok, a bureaucracy that is overbearing, overblown, and overpaid – never mind that the 33,000-strong EU civil service dealing with the soon-to-be 27 countries is, for example, a tenth of the size of the bureaucracy of the state of Texas (312,000).

On this side of the Atlantic some commentators see the sovereignty issue as fundamental in any EU reform. “The nation-state is here to stay, and national policies still have far more democratic legitimacy than those imposed by technocrats in Brussels or Frankfort,” says Matthias Matthijs, a professor at Johns Hopkins University. (In fact, Brussels technocrats don’t impose policy. They may propose it, but the European Parliament has to debate and eventually enact it.)

Among the initiatives already put in place in advance of the Brexit negotiations, and the challenges in need of attention are the following:

Migrant crisis: At the Malta summit, frequently the first landfall for Mediterranean boat people, EU leaders addressed the migrant crisis with some practical steps. The EU will train, provide equipment to, and support the Libyan national coast guard to block refugees leaving the North African coast, and at the same time promised to crack down on the people smugglers. The EU also plans to enlarge its program for returning refugees to their original countries.

Defense and Security: “Under pressure externally and undermined internally, EU leaders turned to defense to prove that European cooperation can still add value and deliver for its people,” wrote Bastian Giegerich, defense and military specialist at the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London. Brexit deprives the European Union of its most militarily capable member at a time when Europe has to cope with an increasingly aggressive Russia, ISIS terrorism, and NATO ally Turkey adrift following an unsuccessful coup. Still, under a new agreement for closer cooperation European Union and NATO staff have worked together to produce 42 actions across the policy areas of hybrid threats, maritime security, cyber security, defense capabilities, defense industrial matters, better coordination on exercises, and defense and security capacity. At the same time, the European Commission was proposing a defense fund to set up a common defense force, is building up military transport, and a military research program opening the way for a European defense industry.

Euro zone: If the euro zone is to survive, the lingering euro crisis also needs to be addressed and solved, if for no other reason that it was never fully solved in the first place, merely shelved. At issue is the fragility of an inter-connected system in which countries perform at different levels of prosperity and efficiency. Greece and Italy remain the economic basket cases, but the EU needs to look beyond the austere fiscal requirements imposed by Germany, and find ways to stimulate economic growth and build a more robust euro area that can cope with future shocks, and prevent country-specific crises from turning into an epidemic.

Transatlantic relations: The election of Donald Trump has shifted the United States from a reliable European ally to a problematic one. In the run-up to the Brexit referendum, President Obama publicly urged the British to vote for remaining in the European Union. President Trump has turned Washington’s view around, applauding the United Kingdom for Brexit and voicing his opposition to the European Union. Trump’s reversal spells the end of lengthy negotiations for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) designed to cut trade tariffs between the U.S. and the EU and remove investment barriers.

More important, it raises serious nagging doubts about America’s traditional role as the upholder of the liberal world order and the guarantor of Europe’s security.

As Brexit talks start the gradual exodus of British staffers from the EU headquarters and from the European Parliament and other institutions is underway. But one vestige of UK membership will remain even after the final break-up in 2019. English will remain in use for EU business– no longer as one of the official EU languages, but from sheer necessity. It is the indispensable common language among the 28 member states.


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