By a vote of 494 to 122 1, the British Parliament, as we know, has just voted in favour of acting upon Article 50, which outlines none other than the procedure for Britain’s ‘hard’ exit from the European Union. And this in spite of an impressive score for the option to ‘Remain’ (48.1%), and of a change in opinion revealed in numerous surveys that have been conducted since the referendum. The improbable May-Corbyn alliance is leading the Britons, and sorry to say, us Continentals to a lesser degree, into a long descent towards the underworld. Yet all of this was foreseeable, indeed we foresaw it. 2
Meanwhile, the twenty-seven remaining countries hold fast to the position that this decision only concerns Britons, that it’s important to take note of it, but that their only obligation consists in preserving the cohesion among those who ‘remain’.
Something must have escaped them. Seven times in the last twenty-five years, the EU, its institutions and Member States have managed to find solutions to or move beyond – depending upon your take – the results of a referendum in one or other Member country. Such was the case in 1992 in Denmark, in 2001 in Ireland, in 2003 in Sweden, in 2005 in France (55% against) and the Netherlands (61.5% against), in 2008 in Ireland again, and in 2016 in the Netherlands once more.
Another thing that has likely escaped the twenty-seven is the consultative nature of the British referendum, as well as the extreme casualness with which the referendum was used in this matter. Of course, continental Europeans can simply accept the sad situation that our British friends are experiencing. Some even take no pains to hide their joy, openly coveting the benefits they can count on from a divorce with Britain: toppling the City in favour of some other European capital, banishing the language of Shakespeare from European institutions, the ‘simple’ pleasure of settling an age old score with perfidious Albion. Others, who seemingly act in better faith, rejoice at the end of the so-called British mortgage on any attempt to enlarge the European project. In doing so, they ignore both sides’ responsibilities in the current, untenable status quo; they forget the UK’s important contribution to creating a common market. Moreover, they write off Britain’s major contribution towards expanding the EU and, in particular, to the stability – however delicate and relative – to the European continent that such expansion has made possible in the face of the Russian regime’s diligent and persistent assaults over the course of the past fifteen years. A regime, it is well to remember, that is a fearsome, modern antithesis to the Rule of Law and the democracy that the EU and its Member States are founded upon.
The fantasy of cohesion among the ‘Twenty-Seven’
It is understandable that the remaining twenty-seven countries reflexively affirm their unity in the face of Britain’s decision, limiting the risk of further spreading, and attempting to preserve the EU’s cohesion, or indeed its survival, but does that make it any more effective? I don’t think so. To put it bluntly, without the United Kingdom, the European Union would be an orphan. Why? To begin with, as I’ve already mentioned, Britain’s contributions have been fundamental in its capacity as the forerunner of European democracy and the Rule of Law. But also because there are countries in the EU that share Great Britain’s model for European construction, which is very different from the one envisioned by the founding nations and by a part of those who subsequently joined, to wit: ‘an ever tighter Union’. One need only think of Hungary, led by the very conservative Victor Orban, the Czech Republic of the Social Democrat Miloš Zeman, Poland under the highly conservative Jarosław Kaczyński, Romania led by the Social Democrat Sorin Grindeanu… to take only the most obvious examples.
The reality that has been repressed for so long is that the degree of diversity in the position of the twenty-eight countries with regard to European construction has now become so great that it is necessary to take stock of the situation and reorganise the EU accordingly. It appears that a short time ago in Malta, the Heads of State and Government of the twenty-seven countries themselves finally realised that.
Unity and diversity
If this observation is correct, then there are two possible options: either the Member States that do not share the ambition of the founding fathers leave the Union (which is to say Brexit, and any subsequent ‘exits’), or the Member States decide as a group to preserve the Union by institutionally organising its diversity in its unity.
In reality, there is no other credible alternative to a political and institutional review that would allow unity and diversity to coexist. It is the condition without which trust among all Members would be impossible and Europe would inevitably end up imploding, or indeed succumbing to its old warring demons.
The admittedly complex question is therefore one of establishing two memberships: membership to the Union of the four freedoms, and membership to what we might call, as Alain Lamassoure does, the ever tighter Community 3 within the institutions that are common to both: the Commission, the Council, the European Council, the European Parliament and the Court of Justice.
For the Council (of Ministers) and the European Parliament, this would entail two separate agendas, as well as different voting and participation rights with different purposes according to one’s membership to the Union or the Community. The European Commission would have to define mechanisms, including a final appeal to the Court of Justice, that guarantee that the pursuit of interests on the part of some does not harm the interests of the others.
This entails a revision of the Treaties. Which could even be done by means of a simplified procedure 4, to the extent that this would not necessitate transferring new authority, but mainly rewriting the current Treaty as two distinct treaties.
The United Kingdom, and any other Member States of the EU that do not wish to be a part of the group of Member States 5 whose aim is to build an ever tighter community, would still be assured a place within common, though differentiated, institutions, the right to acknowledgement and, in a manner yet to be determined, the right to a voice on the policies that are developed or driven by the member countries of the Community. They would also be guaranteed swift access to the free circulation of services, the establishment of two separate budgets (for the Union and for the Community), exemption from any form of contribution to the policies of the current Union, with the exception of structural funds, and, temporarily at least, of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) 6. All policies of the Union of the four freedoms would be voted on according to a procedure of co-decision. In matters of the free circulation of peoples, a safeguard clause would be introduced that might run along these lines: ‘If the number of residents of a member country who come from other member countries of the Union exceeds 5% of the population 7, the country in question may halt the influx of new residents coming from those countries into its territory. This temporary measure is valid for a period of twenty years from the date the new treaty goes into effect. It may not be renewed’. Moreover, a solemn engagement will be made in favour of enlarging the Union by giving absolute priority to the entry of Ukraine into the new Union. Negotiations for Ukraine’s entry would begin the moment the new Treaty of the Union and new Treaty of the Community go into effect.
To each his own
In order to avoid a situation in which several million citizens 8, or merely some minor potentate experiencing internal difficulties, are able to block decisions ratified by the majority of the Council and the European Parliament, and to the extent that commercial policies are the exclusive purview of the Union, all treaties or international commercial agreements would be ratified only by the Council (the Senate) and the European Parliament. Lastly, all Member State of the EU would collectively strive to abolish all tax havens on their soil or their territories.
In return, all Member States of the future Union would collectively strive to modify the composition 9 and the functioning of the Council of Ministers in order for it, in the spirit and letter of the Treaty 10, to become concretely the place where the governments of the Member States find representation, and cease being the place where States themselves are represented. It would therefore have to be turned into a genuine Senate of the Union and the Community, consisting of five or six ministers (Foreign Affairs and Defence, Economy and Finance, Domestic and Justice, Agriculture, Environment, Energy and Transportation, …). These (super) ministers would sit part time in their respective governments and part time in the European Senate. They would moreover constitute the liaison between the Union and their respective national parliaments. The work of the Senate and its specialised commissions would be public.
All of the Westphalian dregs of the current Union would be eliminated – the Council of General Affairs, the Committee of Permanent Representatives (COREPER) – and the mechanism of comitology would be dissolved, the European Union External Action Service (EEAS) would be under the sole authority of the Commission in its capacity as the Commission of the Community, and the vice-president in charge of foreign policy would now fall under the sole jurisdiction of the Commission. The President of the Commission of the Union and the Community, responsible for both treaties, would be elected by direct, universal suffrage of all citizens of the Union (and hence of the Community).
Gratitude in politics
If the United Kingdom’s exit has solid economic implications, it is nevertheless primarily a question of politics. If it is undeniably a reflection of the difficulties engendered by globalisation and accelerated technological transformations, it is also a sign of how difficult it has been, particularly for the English, to build a post-imperial identity 11.
In addition to the rational reasons already mentioned, there is another one that some people would scarcely consider political – the idea of gratitude. In May 1940, when the entire European continent and its ruling classes had capitulated to totalitarian regimes, the British, and chief among them, Winston Churchill, represented the spirit and will of resistance for all Europeans. For four long years, they worked with the Americans and other allied countries on one of the most important military operations of all time – the Normandy landing – that paved the way for the liberation of half of Europe. If for nothing else but a sense of acknowledgement and gratitude for what they did, the ‘Continent’ is obliged to devise a proposition that allows the British to remain stakeholders in the European project.
In the same way today, the stubborn resistance of the Ukrainian people in the face of a force –Russia this time – that threatens us all, combined with their hard work on the difficult path to de-Sovietisation and instilling the Rule of Law that is seriously currently being threatened by an irresponsible oligarchy, merits a sign of profound acknowledgement and gratitude from the European Union and its citizens (a clear indication of membership in the Union). What we do not need is fearful assistance, or, as in the case of the Dutch referendum, insulting, gratuitous behaviour.
« Two speeds » are indispensable
If Europe aims at greater ‘firmness’ by gradually shrinking its boundaries, then it weakens the Union with respect to economic realities, to its strategic ability and to its dual function as both a protector of peace and of the European continent’s development, and a shield against Russia’s menacing imperial ambitions – all the more so now that the United States has announced its disengagement from the European front.
- Including fifty-two of the 231 Labour MPs. ↩
- ‘London, Kiev and Ankara. Three challenges, one solution.’, L’Européen, 23 January 2014. ↩
- ‘Pour une Europe 4.00’, Alain Lamassoure, Commentaire, 155, Fall 2016. ↩
- Procedures for simple revision, Article 48 § 6 of the Treaty. ↩
- The countries that have adopted the Euro or that have committed to doing so very shortly. ↩
- Even in the case of re-nationalisating the non-regulatory part of the CAP, otherwise known as ‘aid’, dismantling should be spread over ten, or even twenty, years, in consideration of the investments made by the actors in the sector. ↩
- At the end of 2016, there were 3 million British residents who came from other member states of the Union, which represents 4.6% of the population, estimated at the time at 65 million. ↩
- At the time of the process of ratification of the Ukraine-European Union Association Agreement, 2.5 million Dutch citizens (who represent 19.5% of the country’s electoral body) managed the feat of blocking a decision that was favoured by the twenty-seven other Member States, who represent 490 million citizens, and by the representatives of 45 million Ukrainians. ↩
- Article 16 § 6 and article 236 of the Treaty. ↩
- “The Council shall consist of a representative of each Member State at ministerial level, who may commit the government of the Member State in question and cast its vote.” Article 16 § 2. ↩
- For more on this question, see Nicholas Boyle’s very good article, ‘The problem with the English: England doesn’t want to be just another member of a team’, The New European, 17 January 2017. ↩