‘The Triumph of democracy’ as Brexit supporters inside and outside of the UK have explained the historic results of whether the UK should remain or leave the EU. referendum. The Leave campaign has successfully mobilized anger of large parts of British society on immigration, the influence of bankers of the City, and the overreach of Brussels bureaucracy. On the other hand the case for Remain was weak in the run up to the referendum, the advantages of the EU were barely present in the debates, all the while fear mongering was dominating on both sides.
Although the pro-Brexit campaign not give any clear picture of how a UK outside the EU would look like, their point that there is life outside of the EU - bringing up Switzerland and Norway as examples – did have some truth in it. They enjoy the benefits of the single market while opting out of the political integration. Those who opposed the Brexit are quick to rebuff this line by saying that these non-member countries basically have to accommodate to EU rules – including on free movement – without having a say in the relevant decisions.
But the problem goes much deeper than that. Switzerland and Norway can have the luxury of opting out because of their size and geography. Although they are rich and well functioning democracies, their overall influence on Europe is limited. It sounds evident , but it’s worth giving it prominence: they can enjoy the benefits of the single European market because there is a single European market, with all its foundational pillars. European peace and welfare isn’t just based on trade, let alone economic cooperation, but shared institutions, procedures and norms created by painful work and compromise. And yes, on the military power and deep political engagement of the United States in Europe. If trade were only to it, then Europe would not have ran into the first World War. Without a certain level of sharing sovereignty with the leadership of Germany and France the peace and prosperity Europe enjoyed in the past sixty years would not have been possible.
However, shared institutions, norms and interdependence by themselves do not bring legitimacy to the European project in the eyes of today’s European citizens. Delivering results in the welfare and security is what might achieve that. And nothing more would bring that closer than results against the negative effects of globalization: uncontrolled immigration, growing inequality within countries, growing masses felt left behind. It’s true that European integration would – in theory - be a useful tool to more effectively tackle these challenges. The challenges of globalization by their nature cannot be tackled successfully alone by nation states.
The problem is that a lot of the major decisions taken by the EU in recent years – that is the Commission and some major European nation states - have exaggerated the challenges, not decreased them. Take the handling of the economic crisis with the disastrous effects of endless austerity imposed on Southern Europe or the migration crisis in which Brussels has simply stepped behind Berlin’s open door – obligatory quota policy. And all these in such an environment where the European publics were already skeptical of the federalist tendencies even before these recent major crisis erupted, as the French and Dutch referendums on the EU Constitution a decade ago have demonstrated.
So with the EU going south on the substance, but – or at least some form of - integration structure still much needed, what next?
First of all, focus should be on the substance. Fostering growth, accelerating innovation, tackling inequality, stopping mass illegal immigration and fighting terrorism with additional resources and proper regulation – but without more integration. The nation states of the EU have to come to terms with each other on these issues foremost. Otherwise any attempt by Brussels or a powerful member to impose its will through the back door on others concerning these critical substantial questions will only hasten the demise of the whole European Union.
Secondly, discussions about the crucial challenges of Europe and the options available should be much more honest and more transparent – the issues on migration and the TTIP are good places to start with. This doesn’t mean that Brussels doesn’t have valid considerations as it is dealing with these issues, but it has to be much more responsive to the concerns of the majority of EU citizens. Any double talk, circumlocution, arrogance and disregard of the fears of many Europeans will only hasten the demise of the whole European Union.
Thirdly, acknowledge that European integration is not a bicycle, which would either go further or fall down. It is rather a huge but slow moving truck on many wheels which at times can even stop to rest to take stock and alter its direction if necessary. It’s a unique and valuable instrument which helps bring us Europeans closer together, and it has become an essential feature of our greater European family, but it cannot replace our homes, the nation states of Europe.