As Bri­tain bows out, Europe’s mo­ment may be at hand Natalie Nougayrède

Merkel and Macron are set­ting the EU’s course for a ‘golden decade’. They won’t let Brexit de­rail them

The Guardian - - JOURNAL -

That Hel­mut Kohl, the man who over­saw the re­uni­fi­ca­tion of Ger­many and was for so long a giant on the Euro­pean stage, should die on the eve of ne­go­ti­a­tions lead­ing to Bri­tain’s with­drawal from the EU seems sym­bolic. The for­mer Ger­man chan­cel­lor made the best of the ex­tra­or­di­nary cir­cum­stances and pub­lic mood that fol­lowed the col­lapse of com­mu­nism and the open­ing up of east­ern Europe.

To­day’s Euro­pean lead­ers are, by con­trast, con­fronted with an es­pe­cially ad­verse set of cir­cum­stances. Trump, Putin, Er­doğan, ter­ror­ism, un­prece­dented flows of mi­gra­tion, un­em­ploy­ment, the rise of pop­ulism and, of course, Brexit. But, just as Kohl and his French con­tem­po­rary François Mit­ter­rand re­launched the Euro­pean project in the early 1990s, An­gela Merkel and Em­manuel Macron are, as Bri­tain pre­pares to leave, ready­ing their am­bi­tions and vi­sion for the con­ti­nent.

At stake is no less than Europe’s role in de­fend­ing lib­eral demo­cratic val­ues and a rules-based in­ter­na­tional order at a time when – as one for­mer Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial put it to me re­cently – Trump’s Amer­ica is “miss­ing in ac­tion and the UK is disappearing into obliv­ion”. The words may be harsh, but they un­der­score that Bri­tain’s cen­tral weak­ness lies not only in its in­ter­nal po­lit­i­cal con­fu­sion – but also with a dan­ger­ous ig­no­rance of what its Euro­pean neigh­bours are set­ting their sights on.

The Franco-Ger­man en­gine is not fo­cus­ing on Brexit but rather on con­sol­i­dat­ing the 60-year-old Euro­pean project through fur­ther in­te­gra­tion and co­op­er­a­tion. At the heart of this stands an emerg­ing Macron-Merkel deal, in­tended to act as Europe’s new pow­er­house. On 15 May, the French and Ger­man lead­ers met and spoke of a new “roadmap” for the EU. The think­ing goes like this: in the next two to three years, as France car­ries out struc­tural eco­nomic re­forms to boost its cred­i­bil­ity, Ger­many will step up much­needed Euro­pean fi­nan­cial sol­i­dar­ity and in­vest­ment mech­a­nisms, and em­brace a new role on for­eign pol­icy, se­cu­rity and de­fence.

For Bri­tain, be­ing aware of the wider Euro­pean con­text should be an im­por­tant part of as­sess­ing op­tions. The sober­ing fact, from Bri­tain’s per­spec­tive, is that how­ever im­por­tant a chal­lenge Brexit may rep­re­sent, it is hardly the sole topic other Euro­peans are fo­cused on. Brexit is not their ob­ses­sion, but a Bri­tish one. Con­ti­nen­tals mostly see it as a te­dious bur­den whose out­come can only be bad for ev­ery­one so the task is about lim­it­ing dam­age.

Out­side Bri­tain, the mood in the EU is on the up­swing. Europe’s eco­nomic sit­u­a­tion has im­proved. Un­em­ploy­ment in the euro­zone is at its low­est since 2009 (but still at 9.5%). Growth has re­turned. Mario Draghi, the head of the Euro­pean Cen­tral Bank, speaks of “a solid and broad re­cov­ery”. Pop­ulist forces have suf­fered po­lit­i­cal de­feats, in Aus­tria, the Nether­lands, France, Italy and Finland.

Across the con­ti­nent, cit­i­zens’ sup­port for the EU is on the rise, ac­cord­ing to Euro­barom­e­ter sur­veys. Polls show Euro­peans are in­creas­ingly in favour of a “mul­ti­ple speed” or “flex­i­ble” EU, in which ad hoc groups of mem­ber states would forge ahead with new projects. For all the head­lines about a pop­ulist move­ment eat­ing away at the EU’s foun­da­tions, it seems all the shock­waves the con­ti­nent has felt in re­cent years have brought a re­newed sense of be­long­ing, and an ap­petite for bet­ter, if not more, in­te­gra­tion.

To be clear: this is not thanks to Brexit, but de­spite it. Strength­en­ing the EU project and open­ing up hori­zons is what Ger­many, France and the Euro­pean com­mis­sion are in­tensely work­ing on. To be­lieve that Euro­peans are gloat­ing, or cyn­i­cally happy to cap­i­talise on Brexit, is to fall into a Trump-like vi­sion of a zero-sum world in which one side’s gain is the other’s loss. When oc­ca­sional con­ti­nen­tal voices claim they rel­ish the thought of Brexit, be sure there is more provo­ca­tion at play than ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the mean­ing of the process, or of its con­se­quences.

The point is that the EU has turned a cor­ner, and feels more con­fi­dent. It wants to de­velop its ca­pac­i­ties to act in­ter­na­tion­ally be­yond its bor­ders – not just per­pet­u­ally fix its in­ter­nal prob­lems. It has no other choice, be­cause of its geopo­lit­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment. Some of this pre­dates the Brexit ref­er­en­dum.

AEuro­pean de­fence fund is now be­ing dis­cussed, no­tably for joint pro­cure­ment ef­forts (but don’t ex­pect a Euro­pean army to emerge). Also, there is talk of set­ting up a Euro­pean Mone­tary Fund, and in­creas­ing in­vest­ments for job cre­ation. One Ger­man of­fi­cial told me his coun­try was un­der­go­ing “a sea change” be­cause pub­lic opin­ion had come around to the view that “Europe should take on more re­spon­si­bil­ity” if the US re­treated. This was not to say, he quickly added, that Merkel should be seen as the leader of the west or a new em­bod­i­ment of the Statue of Lib­erty – she her­self has called that “ab­surd”. But in re­cent dis­cus­sions with Euro­pean ex­perts and of­fi­cials, I heard the fol­low­ing com­ment: “A golden decade may be dawn­ing for Europe.” A new nar­ra­tive is in the air.

There are many caveats, no doubt. Anx­i­eties are rife about Ital­ian banks, for ex­am­ple. Re­sis­tance in Ger­many’s fi­nance min­istry about any­thing that may weigh on Ger­man tax­pay­ers has by no means gone away. Ger­many’s role in se­cu­rity and de­fence still stirs gru­elling do­mes­tic de­bates – even as the coun­try de­ploys troops in Lithua­nia as part of Nato’s de­ter­rence of Rus­sia. Much will de­pend on the out­come of Ger­man elec­tions in Septem­ber. The pop­ulist wave in Europe may have ebbed, but it hasn’t dis­ap­peared, nor all the fac­tors that fu­elled it. Brexit will be time con­sum­ing and will take up huge amounts of en­ergy.

Still, the sce­nario of a Euro­pean reawak­en­ing shouldn’t be dis­carded – es­pe­cially not in Bri­tain, as it heads for a wrench­ing exit. With Trump and Brexit, Europe now has a role in de­fend­ing val­ues and in­ter­na­tional in­sti­tu­tions in a way that was “un­prece­dented”, in­sists a for­mer Obama of­fi­cial. “Europe needs to hold the fort, as long as Trump re­mains in of­fice. It’s Europe’s mo­ment.”

A Lux­em­bourg for­eign min­is­ter once in­fa­mously pro­claimed that 1992 would be “the hour of Europe”. The ex­pres­sion drew bit­ter irony as Europe dis­mally failed to put an end to the hu­man catas­tro­phe in the for­mer Yu­goslavia. But 1992 was also the year when, un­der Kohl and Mit­ter­rand’s guid­ance, the Maas­tricht treaty trans­formed the Euro­pean Eco­nomic Com­mu­nity into a for­mal union. The real em­pha­sis in Europe, 25 years on, is not on Brexit or breakups, but on how, in a shift­ing world, the EU can ac­quire new, in­dis­pens­able sig­nif­i­cance.

Just as Kohl and Mit­ter­rand seized the op­por­tu­ni­ties that his­tory pre­sented to them, Merkel and Macron are, in dif­fer­ent cir­cum­stances, iden­ti­fy­ing their path to­wards a com­mon Euro­pean en­deav­our. Af­ter a decade of cri­sis, Europe may now be pulling out of it. More Bri­tish aware­ness of this might help avert bad choices.

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