Rip­ples on wa­ter

What fu­ture for the EU af­ter Brexit?

The Ukrainian Week - - CONTENTS - Michael Binyon, Lon­don

Michael Binyon (Lon­don) on the fu­ture of the EU af­ter Brexit?

At the end of this month, Britain is to leave the Eu­ro­pean Union, 47 years af­ter it joined what was then the Com­mon Mar­ket. It will be a shock – although long an­tic­i­pated – for the other 27 mem­bers. No coun­try has ever left the EU, and this spec­tac­u­lar no­con­fi­dence vote will test the hopes of the re­main­ing mem­bers to stay com­mit­ted and united. They will miss not only Britain as an im­por­tant part of the sin­gle mar­ket; they will also miss a lot of Bri­tish ex­per­tise and the prag­ma­tism of its diplo­mats, that in the past has of­ten been use­ful in trans­lat­ing lofty as­pi­ra­tions of other mem­bers into the re­al­ity of new EU law.

But Brexit will not be the only chal­lenge fac­ing a union that has so far shown re­mark­able re­silience. The past decade has been a dif­fi­cult one for the EU. The first half was dom­i­nated by the fi­nan­cial cri­sis that be­gan in Greece in the last weeks of 2009. This swiftly turned into an ex­is­ten­tial threat to the Euro­zone, as fi­nan­cial con­ta­gion spread to other vul­ner­a­ble economies – in par­tic­u­lar, Por­tu­gal, Italy, Ire­land and Spain. Sev­eral of them needed huge and ex­pen­sive EU emer­gency stand-by guar­an­tees.

Yet even when the Greek cri­sis was fi­nally re­solved in mid-2015, an even greater threat be­gan.

More than a mil­lion refugees, mainly from Syria but in­clud­ing also thou­sands of eco­nomic mi­grants from Africa, Iraq, Afghanista­n and else­where, ar­rived on Eu­rope’s bor­ders. Ger­many took the morally brave but po­lit­i­cally reck­less de­ci­sion to let them all come in. Chan­cel­lor Merkel’s de­ci­sion to throw open Ger­many’s bor­ders had im­me­di­ate reper­cus­sions on its neighbours, who sud­denly feared that they too would be swamped by mi­grants. It al­most led to the col­lapse of the Schen­gen bor­der-free travel ar­range­ments as other states hastily in­sti­tuted tem­po­rary bor­der checks, or be­gan build­ing walls and fences across cen­tral and Eastern Eu­rope to keep out the huge num­bers of refugees slowly mak­ing their way on train, bus and on foot across the Balkans.

The legacy of that cri­sis has con­tin­ued to poi­son EU pol­i­tics to this day, and has fu­elled sup­port for anti-im­mi­grant par­ties and has boosted pop­ulist, rightwing Euroscep­tic politi­cians, espe­cially across for­mer com­mu­nist coun­tries.

Some­how Eu­rope man­aged to sur­vive both th­ese chal­lenges. But they have not gone away. The threat of eco­nomic stag­na­tion and slow growth in the Euro­zone con­tin­ues, as does the desta­bil­is­ing dom­i­nance of the Ger­man econ­omy, which is still marginal­is­ing many of the strug­gling economies of south­ern and eastern Eu­rope. The Euro­zone economies are, on the whole, more sta­ble now, but eco­nomic growth re­mains lack­lus­tre and has to be un­der­pinned by a vast cen­tral bank bond-buy­ing pro­gramme. This can­not con­tinue in­def­i­nitely, and busi­ness con­fi­dence might soon evap­o­rate if it stops.

Eu­ro­pean economies are also be­ing buf­feted by the chal­lenge of China, which is mak­ing ever greater in­roads into the heart­lands of the EU, buy­ing up in­dus­tries, con­trol­ling vi­tal trade pat­terns and us­ing its eco­nomic mus­cle to fur­ther its po­lit­i­cal as well as busi­ness in­ter­ests in Eu­rope. This is hap­pen­ing just at a time when Amer­ica is los­ing in­ter­est in Eu­rope. Don­ald Trump has al­ready made it clear that he is not re­ally com­mit­ted to the col­lec­tive de­fence of Eu­rope through NATO. He also has no hes­i­ta­tion is be­ing ready to slap puni­tive tar­iffs on EU im­ports if he thinks that Eu­rope is pos­ing un­fair com­pe­ti­tion to US pro­duc­ers. And he has shown, with his readi­ness to chal­lenge China, that he hardly even cares if a re­sult­ing global trade war harms US al­lies in Eu­rope. And most Eu­ro­pean politi­cians now reckon it is highly prob­a­ble that Trump will be re-elected in Novem­ber.

The threat of con­tin­ued il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion into Eu­rope, espe­cially across the Mediter­ranean into Italy, Greece and Spain, also is likely to con­tinue. For the mo­ment, the num­bers ar­riv­ing have fallen. But if Turkey has a se­ri­ous new quar­rel with its western NATO al­lies, Pres­i­dent Er­do­gan has al­ready threat­ened to re­move all con­trols and al­low many of the three mil­lion refugees now be­ing housed in Turkey to find their own way west­wards into Eu­rope. And they could be joined by a new wave of asy­lum seek­ers if the Iran cri­sis leads to a new war in the Mid­dle East or the civil war in Libya makes it im­pos­si­ble to en­force any re­stric­tion on the peo­ple-smug­glers now ship­ping thou­sands of Africans on flimsy boats across the Mediter­ranean.

Fur­ther il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion would only bol­ster the stand­ing of right-wing pop­ulists in the EU. Al­ready,

the gov­ern­ments of Poland and Hun­gary have openly de­fied rul­ings from Brus­sels on sharing out the im­mi­grant bur­den. They have also de­fied Brus­sels on many other is­sues, in­clud­ing the free­dom of the press, the in­de­pen­dence of the courts and the bal­ances and checks of a democ­racy. Their anti-EU stance has in fact added to their pop­u­lar­ity, and other politi­cians in the re­gion may be tempted to take the same line – un­der­min­ing both the au­thor­ity and the stand­ing of the Eu­ro­pean Union. Some pop­ulist politi­cians may even be tempted to urge their coun­tries to copy Britain and leave the EU al­to­gether, which would be a se­ri­ous po­lit­i­cal blow.

The EU also faces in­sta­bil­ity on its eastern and south­ern bor­ders. This fol­lows Rus­sia’s an­nex­a­tion of Crimea and armed in­ter­ven­tion in eastern Ukraine and the re­sul­tant freeze in East-West re­la­tions. This is bad for busi­ness, bad for morale and takes much of Eu­rope back to the old con­fronta­tions of the Cold War. To the south of the EU, the fight­ing in Libya and Syria, the new cri­sis with Iran and the pos­si­ble col­lapse of lu­cra­tive mar­kets in the Gulf mean that the EU will have to pay much more at­ten­tion to its de­fence in the com­ing decade. This will be costly and it also will prompt fur­ther ques­tions over whether NATO has out­lived its use­ful­ness and whether a new Eu­ro­pean de­fen­sive al­liance can be built in­stead – cru­cially, with­out the main con­trib­u­tor to Eu­ro­pean de­fence, Britain.

Eu­rope en­ters the new decade un­der siege. Many of the fa­mil­iar faces will change. In Ger­many, An­gela Merkel’s long ten­ure as chan­cel­lor will soon be over, and so far no politi­cian or sin­gle po­lit­i­cal party looks strong enough to give the coun­try the firm and sta­ble lead­er­ship Ger­mans want. In France, Pres­i­dent Macron may still as­pire to lead­er­ship of Eu­rope’s in­ter­na­tional role, but the many chal­lenges, strikes and demon­stra­tions at home will pre­oc­cupy him and may se­verely weaken his au­thor­ity. In Italy and Spain, po­lit­i­cal in­sta­bil­ity seems likely to con­tinue, with reg­u­lar fresh elec­tions un­able to pro­duce a gov­ern­ment that is ei­ther sta­ble or ef­fec­tive. And the smaller coun­tries of the EU, which have en­joyed play­ing a larger role on the world stage through the col­lec­tive power of the whole union, may find their own in­flu­ence di­min­ished as the EU it­self is squeezed be­tween China, Rus­sia, Amer­ica and other com­pet­ing forces.

Many in Britain may feel they have been lucky in de­cid­ing to leave the EU. But even if the Brexit talks on fu­ture re­la­tions with the rest of Eu­rope can be com­pleted by the dead­line at the end of this year (which looks un­likely), there is still huge un­cer­tainty over what role Britain – still a per­ma­nent mem­ber of the United Na­tions Se­cu­rity Coun­cil – can play alone on the world stage. It will be a tough chal­lenge for Lon­don as well as for Berlin, Paris and Rome.



Leader change. French Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron seeks to lead Eu­rope af­ter Brexit and Ger­man Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel's de­par­ture from pol­i­tics

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