Wednesday, 30 August 2017

A rocky road ahead for the EU

If I have learned anything about the EU it is that long term speculation over its future is, more often than not, wishful thinking. Over the years I must have published dozens of my own prognostications of varying accuracy but I think it safe to say that all of them have been wide of the mark. I think it goes with the territory of being a eurosceptic. Even now hard leavers will retweet anything that suggests the EU's imminent demise.

In more recent month and years I have taken the view that the EU will linger on and slide into irrelevance. For the last few months, EU watchers have been wondering if the EU will make an intervention in Poland over its judicial reforms. I am now seeing indications that it won't. The EU may be putting a brave face on Brexit, sending out messages of renewed vigour, but anything that could be interpreted as an overt intrusion on national sovereignty from now on, especially in the wake of Greece, will only serve the agenda of eurosceptics.

Meanwhile there is an argument still to be has as to whether Eastern European member states will take a share of refugees. For the moment Hungary and Poland have right wing leaders who will not give way to the suggestion. It would be that a new government will give ground, but that will be seen as a domestic betrayal which will store up consequences for the future in the same way that it has in the UK.

This brings us to a surprisingly thoughtful article in the Financial Times, which suggests that Brexit very well could be a long term threat to European unity.
Poland and Hungary, both run by ultra-right governments, have also been distancing themselves from the mainstream. The EU has launched a sanctions procedure against Poland in protest at reforms that would leave the government largely in control of the judiciary. Poland and Hungary are also both refusing to accept their share of refugees. Listening to Viktor Orban, the Hungarian prime minister, one wonders how long his country will want to stay in the EU. When Hungary ceases to be a net beneficiary of EU funds, his Euroscepticism may no longer be tempered by financial considerations. Once the UK leaves and stops contributing to the EU budget, the assessment of the pros and cons of EU membership, especially by non-eurozone countries, will change.
In that respect Hungary is not alone. A number of satellite members view the EU as a practical necessity and a source of funding. When that funding slows and the accession development funds dry up, questions will be asked. Britain is not the only country in the midst of a political realignment.

The FT seems to think that Brexit will be the barometer when it becomes clearer what the consequences of leaving are. In that regard I think the EU is fairly safe in that we can say that Brexit is not going to be the roaring success that Tory Brexiteers believe it to be. All the same, though, the writing is on the wall for the EU. It must reform and there must be a fundamental change in the nature of the organisation.

It is expected that Macron will lead the charge for reform but there is reason to doubt his sincerity and his credibility. A multi-speed Europe is a perennial idea that never seems to come to anything. It would be hugely ironic if Brexit were the catalyst that finally brings it to fruition.

What commentators tend to miss, though, is that the architecture of the EU from the ground up is designed to fend off reform. Moreover, if junior members think a two speed Europe means missing out on anything then they are likely to torpedo it. Consequently reform may be thwarted by the EU's own bureaucratic inertia.

Thus the EU will linger on in a state of paralysis until it lacks the moral and political authority to do much beyond the humdrum of trade negotiations, and even then, trade exclusivity may not last as a concept for much longer.

Ultimately the founding vision of the EU is tarnished. It lacks the momentum and energy we saw around the launch of the Euro. It's most enthusiastic proponents are on the defensive trying to shore up something that has lost touch with what it wants to be, and dare not aspire to be more than it is.

I'm wouldn't place any bets on a dramatic break-up of the EU, and I can't even be sure that we will see other members leave, but Brexit leaves the EU a weaker, less confident, less capable entity where the balance of power shifts toward members who have traditionally been subordinates out on the fringe.

It is a largely Western European interpretation that the EU is the plaything of the Franco-German axis tempered by Britain, but now the UK as a power is departing, others will move to fill that void and remind France and Germany that they do not call all of the shots. Only one thing is certain. The beast with which we must contend will be a very different animal to the one we are leaving.  

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