“The European Union is not going well – economically we see the end of Europe’s glorious years.”
Surprisingly, these are not the words of a eurosceptic seeking arguments for Britain’s withdrawal from the EU but of no less a figure than Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission in Brussels, during a speech last month in Madrid. He explained that the EU, while still a huge economy and trading bloc, faces an age of comparative economic decline as its share of global output falls, which puts the dream of a unified continent at risk.
In addition to the current overall economic slowdown, there are two other factors which now pose a potential threat to the EU’s future: the European single currency is in disarray partly as a result of the ongoing Greek debt crisis, and there are manifest divisions amongst member states over the handling of the continent’s greatest migrant emergency since the end of the Second World War.
There is also another dimension – the real threat of ‘Brexit’, the shorthand term for Britain potentially leaving the EU altogether. As a result there are now genuine fears about the possible disintegration of the European project.
Creation of the Eurozone was an essential step leading to a federal superstate, though it is now widely accepted that it cannot work without some form of fiscal and banking union. Greece has agreed to the imposition of austerity measures in return for a third EU bailout, but without debt relief its economy is unlikely to recover in the long term. So far, Germany in particular has made it clear that it will not agree to debt relief or, indeed, further bailouts. The impasse will therefore remain, which will be to the detriment of the Eurozone as a whole.
Sadly, the Greek situation has precipitated the sort of alienation, divisiveness and disorder which the founding fathers of a post-war Europe sought to prevent.
As for migration from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, North Africa and elsewhere, the closing of borders by several EU countries against travellers from outside the Union, as well as temporary reinstatement of passport controls amongst the Schengen zone countries, has begun to put pressure on the very existence of the EU. Disagreement among member states about mandatory quotas (imposed by Brussels) of migrants to be accepted by each has made matters even worse. This situation is unlikely to improve since the EU itself has predicted that up to three million more migrants could arrive in Europe by the end of next year.
In Britain, the issue of the nation’s EU membership is now a matter of keen debate. The Prime Minister, David Cameron, is seeking reforms to the existing terms of the UK’s membership in advance of an in/out referendum before the end of 2017. He is due to write this week to the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, setting out the changes he is seeking to the UK’s relationship with the EU ahead of the referendum. It has become clear that, if he can reach agreement that works for Britain and works for her European partners, he will himself campaign to keep the nation inside a reformed EU. An EU summit meeting will consider the issue in December.
Meanwhile, the groups for and against continued membership have set to work.
Those in favour argue that millions of jobs and foreign direct investment are linked to being inside the EU which has traditionally been the UK’s largest export market, and membership means having a say about the rules of the Single Market. As well as economic security there are issues of national security; and being inside helps, too, the fight against crime through the European Arrest Warrant.
It also makes it easier for British citizens to work and travel in Europe; but, most significantly, membership of an enormous trading bloc of 28 countries with a combined population of some 500 million contributes to the nation’s standing and influence in the world.
By contrast, those against pose the basic question – should the UK be an independent nation trading with Europe but living under its own laws or should it be part of a country called Europe?
They argue that any idea of a ‘Europe of Nations’ is a myth because the EU is bent on working towards political union and creation of a supranational Europe and it views acceptance of this as the basic condition of membership. Such integration would apply, inter alia, in the fields of justice and home affairs, diplomatic representation, human rights, immigration and defence.
Such eurosceptics maintain that Europe should constitute independent states trading freely with one another and working together for the common good with sporting and cultural cooperation; and for this there is no need to do away with the existence of the nation state itself.
Many Britons would doubtless agree with such a proposition and it is what voters signed up for in the 1975 referendum about the nation staying as a member of the then European Economic
Community. But this approach is, of course, at variance with that of the founding fathers who considered that the suppression of nationalism was essential to achieve lasting peace.
These eurosceptics argue specifically for an opt-out in relation to ever-closer political union and seek control of borders and an acknowledgment of the supremacy of English laws rather than EU laws superseding individual states’ legislation. They also want to reduce the UK’s excessive budgetary contributions and end the EU’s interference in business with its unnecessary harmonization, petty regulations and excessive red tape which is seen as holding its member states back, not least London’s position as a financial services hub.
Furthermore, they maintain that, if Britain left the EU, as a net EU importer it should be possible to negotiate some sort of trade agreement as part of an economic relationship similar to that of Norway.
It now seems that public opinion is turning against the idea of further EU integration and that the politicians are reflecting this in their public utterances. At the ruling Conservative Party’s annual conference in October David Cameron said that Britain was “not interested in ever-closer union”, and, in a recent speech to German businessmen in Berlin, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne stated that only a tiny minority of voters in the UK now supported a push towards such closer integration.
Thus the scene is set as the Prime Minister this week sets out his stall for reform. The arguments remain finely balanced.
Europhiles remind everyone of the importance, following the horrors of the Second World War, of unity in an increasingly unstable world and that steady progress over half a century towards the idea of a supranational Europe has indeed prevented serious armed conflict on the continent, particularly between France and Germany. Moreover, they stress that Britain is geographically at the heart of Europe and overall has benefited considerably from its EU membership even though there is now a need to reform it.
However, irrespective of the arguments on each side, there is a danger that those in favour of the status quo may underestimate Britain’s capacity to go it alone outside the EU – a global power with worldwide economic, diplomatic, military and cultural influence; a trading nation of 64 million people with contacts and links throughout the world; one of seven nuclear states and the world’s fourth-ranked military power; a leading member of the G 8 and G 20 and of NATO and the Commonwealth, and a permanent member of the UN Security Council.
While the debate about UK membership rumbles on, the question remains – is the EU really in danger of disintegrating?
Much will depend on how the Eurozone develops in bringing its member countries closer together with more fiscal and banking cooperation and how the Greek debt crisis is handled. Equally important will be the management of the migration crisis. In particular, it is clearly important to bring together those member states which are most affected and for them to agree jointly how to handle the problem.
The issue of a possible Brexit will not arise formally, if at all, until the outcome is known of Britain’s planned referendum in 2017. But much will depend on how Mr. Cameron’s reform negotiations play out in the coming months. This debate could have a weakening effect on the EU as an organization, but it is too soon to tell.
Be all that as it may, these are testing times for Europe. While sovereignty and national identity should always be protected and given due weight, there is a growing danger of the emergence of the ugly side of nationalism. That does not augur well for world peace and stability.
Nassau N.P. Bahamas, November 8, 2015
Peter Young, Retired British High Commissioner, now resdies in The Bahamas.