Over the past few weeks, the view that the EU has to make the British suffer during the Brexit negotiations has been voiced many times. The sentiment that we need to make the British pay – literally and figuratively – seems to prevail among many people. Julian Barnes captured this sentiment in the diary he keeps for the London Review of Books. He recalls a recent conversation with a French woman, who has been living in England for more than thirty years. A gentle and fairly apolitical woman, but nonetheless she gave Britain, through Barnes, a clear warning: “Now people will hate you again”. This is troublesome and worrying attitude. The desire to hurt is never a solid basis for diplomacy. Moreover, it would be a particularly inappropriate attitude for a Nobel Peace Prize laureate like the EU. Instead of making the British suffer, the EU should reflect on the future.
The Brexit referendum was not the first referendum that expressed doubt or even mistrust of the EU, and euroscepticism tends to be on the political agenda in every member state now. By focusing too much on Brexit, we risk neglecting the belief that the Brexit-referendum is only one of many signals that something has to change. In order to determine the course of that change, it is important to take into account the principal concerns of the eurosceptics. There are of course many reasons why a significant minority of the British people voted to leave the EU. But many of those seem to boil down to three things: money, migration and myths. Hence the future of a post-Brexit Europe will depend on how the EU deals with those three M’s.
It’s all about the money
The inefficiency in the making and implementing decisions at the European level entail great costs, and emphasizing these costs is the cornerstone of the eurosceptic rhetoric. One of the popular proposals of the Brexiteers was the promise to transfer the money being spent on Europe to the National Health Service (NHS). That was a false promise of course, or more precisely a blatant lie, which Nigel Farage also reluctantly admitted a day after the referendum. But money is a big concern for the eurosceptics, and they owe their successes, to a significant extent, in the way they have been able to depict the EU as a massively wasteful organization and the people working there as self-serving bureaucrats who make loads of money, even in times of crisis.
Striving towards more efficiency should therefore be a top priority of the European institutions. It will take much reforming to accomplish this. One of the reforms that should arguably be considered is putting an end to the European Parliament’s travelling circus. This is a monthly roadshow that is particularly offensive to many Europeans – an online petition for a single seat of the European Parliament in 2007 gathered more than a million signatures. The lack of any movement on the issue serves as grist for the mill of the eurosceptics.
Many people, in Britain and elsewhere, are very much concerned about economic migration. The Brexiteers have repeatedly, and with apparent success, expressed their discontentment about the influx of economic migrants, especially since 2004 when several East European countries entered the Union. The fight against social dumping and the fight for more social equality between the different member states is of the greatest importance for the countries to which and from which economic migrants move. The EU may have made a mistake prioritizing expansion over integration, and it should have foreseen that significant economic inequality among the different member states would lead to waves of migration, unless the freedom of movement provisions of the Treaties were amended. Unfortunately, it does not look like we will learn from our previous mistakes. At a recent conference organised by the World Economic Forum, Federica Mogherini talked positively about the expansion of the EU towards the south-east of Europe in the not too distant future. However, the average net income in Bosnia and Herzegovina is less than 500 euro/month. In Kosovo it is even less. So there are large political and financial hurdles to be taken before expansion in that direction could even be seriously considered. Expanding the EU might sound like a magnanimous plan but may instead cause more instability.
The Myth of the Elites
This brings us to the final M: the EU should find a rebuttal to a couple of myths that Brexiteers have cultivated regarding its existence. One of those is that Europe is governed by an elite that is completely estranged from the “real” people. Consequently, these people don’t have anything to say about their own destinies. The rise of right-wing populism (and left-wing too) in Europe (and elsewhere) over the past years entailed an illusionary revolt against the elites, but those leading the fight were themselves members of the elite.
It is folly to believe that a whole society can be governed by “the people” themselves. Any representative system requires the creation of political elites, and even in non-representative systems such elites exist. Furthermore, Brexit shows that those in charge in Brussels are not immune to what “the people” say. On the contrary, the reaction of the EU to the outcome of the Brexit-referendum precisely shows that people do have a say over their own destinies and that the EU tries to take one of the key principles of representative democracy to heart, namely that those in office represent the interests of the people who put them there, and these people express their interests through elections (and, in some cases, through referenda).
One of the common critiques of the EU however is that we haven’t put those people in office, therefore it is not democratic. A recurrent theme in the eurosceptic rhetoric is that the institutions of the EU are crowded with people we didn’t vote for, often people who have been shoved out of their national politic scene.
Again, that is only a partial truth. The European Parliament is indeed the only institution for which we can directly vote. But apart from that, the European Council comprises the heads of state of the member states, i.e. people we directly voted for. The Council of the European Union assembles the national ministers of the member states, in function of the topic being discussed. Again, these are people we directly voted for at the national level. And the members of the European Commission also don’t suddenly pop up out of nowhere. They are nominated by their respective member states, and very often this nomination reflects the outcome of elections at the national level and the subsequent formation talks of governments at that level. In other words, these nominations depend on how we vote nationally.
The end of the nation state
Another myth that has been effectively propagated, as was pointed out by the Dutch writer and expert on European history, Geert Mak, concerns the creation of a false dichotomy: either it is the nation state, or it is European federalism, whereas more European integration does not necessarily have to imply either. There is a middle ground between European integration and nationalism (or rather national sovereignty and identity), but this is being denied both by the most ardent defenders of the EU – who want complete integration – and by the eurosceptics who want to dismantle the EU. The EU should more effectively emphasize the existence of this middle ground and its own appreciation of the nation state concept.
Low point or turning point
What many perceive as a low point in the process of European integration, might well prove to be a turning point because we are quite certain that many things will change. Brexit might be the first step towards more disintegration or it can be the wake-up call that advances Europe towards better forms of integration. The choice is really ours, for we are Europe. At this moment Brexit might seem too radical a remedy for the ills of the Union. After all, you don’t amputate a leg because of a broken foot. But time will tell if both Britain and the EU learn to walk properly again, maybe even hand in hand.