The British referendum should trigger a rethink of the European Union, which remains a major asset with which to face the challenges of the 21st century.
The referendum of 23rd June will doubtless be remembered as the most important political turning point for Europe since the fall of the Berlin Wall. It will weigh heavy for the future of the United Kingdom and of the European Union, which will have to redefine themselves following the result of the vote.
First of all, it has proved that political passions have held sway over economic interests. In contrast to the Scottish independence referendum whose result was considerably influenced by the economic uncertainty of secession, the vote on the EU was dominated by the debate on nationality identity and immigration. By opening the European Pandora’s box, David Cameron revived the debate on UK sovereignty, its identity, and its relationship with the continent. And yet its membership of the Common Market and then of the EU turned out to be a remarkable success, bringing recovery and placing the building of the European community under the influence of of English economic liberalism and its democratic tradition. Furthermore, the creation of the euro, far from being an obstacle to British growth, reinforced the supremacy of the City.
The British referendum campaign also saw the revenge of demagogues and extremists, reaching the very heart of oldest democracy in Europe. And yet the stability of its institutions, symbolized by the 90th birthday of Elizabeth II, seemed to keep it from being skewed off course by nationalists and xenophobia. First in line to take the blame is David Cameron who took a gamble with the United Kingdom and held the Europe hostage for the sake of a partisan maneuver. But the Brexit campaign veered off course and became radicalized, culminating in the tragic murder of Jo Cox and showing to what extent European nations are in political crisis and how opinion is becoming subject to a temptation to violence.
Whilst rabble-rousing and violence must be countered, the growing exasperation of Europeans with the malfunctioning of national and community institutions deserves to be taken into account. The treaty of Lisbon had promised to make Europe the most competitive region in the world, but the last decade has been a failure in terms of growth and employment for most of the continent and its inhabitants. The euro was based on untenable principles which promised the containment of economic crises, and this almost caused its collapse in 2009. And the corrective measures cannot guarantee its survival. The middle classes have been destabilized in terms of their jobs, income, heritage and their expectancy of social mobility. The free movement of people has been derailed by the disappearance of any border control, which has exacerbated fears with regard to immigration. The terrorist threat and pressure from Russia has seriously degraded security in Europe. Since the beginning of the 21st century, European leaders have claimed to provide their citizens with perpetual prosperity and peace, but have given their citizens the worst economic crisis since 1929, monetary union that is unworkable in its present state, a plethora of lost wars, growing insecurity and the rebirth of the extreme right-wing.
For all these reasons, the British referendum is a final warning. Above all, it means rethinking Europe. Not by some blind mechanical revival of integration which would simply unleash a furore, but by studying the desire that European citizens are expressing for more control over their own destinies, which means a more responsible, more operational and more protective Europe.
There are five main principles:
- The dream of one federal Europe built on the break-up of its member states is suicidal. The Union must be centered on the management of collective risks – in which area it has some relevance – and on policies which directly benefit its citizens, such as the Erasmus program for students. Any ambiguity about constantly extending its frontiers must be dissipated, and negotiations with the Ukraine and Turkey should be reoriented toward a partnership which excludes membership.
- The anxiety of the middle classes must be defused. Although European economic recovery appears to be fragile and very gradual, inequalities can be lessened, massive investment can be made in education and infrastructures, anxiety about identity can be reduced by taking back control of the Union’s external borders, by creating common laws covering immigration and political asylum and by making development aid subject to acceptance of the return of those who have been refused entry.
- In order to ensure its continuity, the euro zone must be strengthened by a coordinated economic policy or by common social and fiscal norms. This presupposes both the creation of an assembly formed from the European Parliament and a clear disconnection from the open market.
- The building of Europe must be brought back into equilibrium by the creation of a Security Union whose obejctive would be to protect our citizens against any terrorist threat, to monitor infrastructures and to control borders.
- The European project cannot be reinvented without a strong Franco-German intiative or without the leadership of a major political figure, something that has not happened since the time of Jacques Delors.
Everything that has been achieved on the continent over more than sixty years must not be squandered.
Failing a return to the spirit and values of a United States of Europe as defended by Winston Churchill in 1946, it is essential not to squander the considerable political capital accumulated over more than sixty years of moving towards integration. This is our common property and a major asset for Europeans in face of the risks of the 21st century.
(Column publlished in Le Point, 23rd June 2016)