I was listening to a news report (I must stop doing that unless I have blood pressure tablets handy!) in the aftermath of the Brexit vote and they were discussing a meeting within the EU, the public face of which were the Trinity of Angela Merkel, Francois Hollande and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. Let’s not pull any punches here, when it comes to EU decision making, German Chancellor Merkel is GodMother with French President Hollande following in tow. These figures, along with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, guide the EU with lesser members expected to simply bow and acquiesce. It was no accident that at this time of greatest upheaval, Merkel and Hollande were the face of the EU.
The news report stated that while Angela Merkel had initially taken a hard line approach to the Brexit vote, she had now softened her stance somewhat and was advising patience, there was “no need to be particularly nasty” and that decisions should be thought through and not hurried. I liked the “particularly” bit, be nasty but not particularly nasty. Perhaps she was trying to dampen the EU rhetoric that if Britain wanted out then it should get out, now. Let there be no mistake though, The EU hierarchy is angry at Britain and any patience will be tension filled and short lived. This is the EU speaking, a softening of attitude (especially towards Britain) is more akin to a defrost from ten inch thick ice to merely frozen. The underlying message? How dare you leave the EU! How dare you not tow the line! If this was a private back room discussion and not in the worldwide media glare where discretion and sensitivity are necessary, I suspect the air would have been red, white and blue with expletives.
The clear message regarding the EU position was this. Give no special treatment to the UK (not that any would be expected) and be hard line in exit negotiations (can we put the particularly into the nasty now?), because we want to discourage any other countries from having In-Out referendums of their own. God forbid anyone else should want to leave the EU, such an attitude will be dampened with an iron boot at every opportunity, despite Merkel’s stated opinion that “deterring other countries from leaving the EU should not be a priority in the talks.” There have been rumblings from other EU members states about wanting to leave and all eyes are on Britain now to see how things unfold.
Britain must now be punished for daring to leave. George Osborne threatened a ‘punishment budget’ if the Leave vote won. This may not have been the best tactic in the campaign given that many had already taken President Obama’s message that leaving the EU would result in the UK being at the back of the US trade queue, as a bullying threat behind the disarming Presidential smile and jovial chat. There are only so many threats people can take before the rebellion starts. Osborne’s punishment budget threat failed and now Britain faces an EU exit punishment negotiation.
Yet the EU must be careful lest the threat of further punishment tips even some of the Remain camp into defence mode against an EU bent on making an example of Britain. It’s worth remembering that not all Remain voters love the EU, they just think it’s better than the alternative. It remains to be seen if the long muzzled British Bulldog has bite left in its bark or if this period, pregnant with possibility, causes it to give birth to Welsh, Scottish, English and Northern Irish pups who fight their own battles charting their own paths with (perhaps) softer yet newly empowered barks.
I also heard Angela Merkel speaking only a few days ago about the ‘EU project’ and the EU Commission President, Jean Claude Juncker said, on the morning of the referendum, there would be no further reform deals for the UK after the vote and he left not an inch of sunlight to give hope. This meant the reforms the Prime Minister claimed in his February negotiations were as good as it would get, pouring cold water on his Remain campaign claim that a Britain remaining in the EU could continue pressing for more reform. Any Remainer voting in the hope of further reform voted on a false premise. It’s not just the Leave camp who were guilty of exaggeration and false claims. Of course had Remain won the PM could then say he only promised to press or fight for more reforms, not that he would achieve them.
When asked by the BBC’s Katya Adler if this was the beginning of the end of the EU, Juncker replied with a blunt “No!” then walked away. It struck me as revealing about the EU. Love it or loathe it, the EU is seen by those at the top, with most invested in it, as a project that must not fail, cannot be allowed to fail. Make no mistake, there are many ego’s in play from all sides across member states and Britain. There are ego’s which won’t countenance the thought that the EU could crumble and the ‘EU project’ includes taking whatever measures are necessary to discourage other member states from following Britain’s lead, despite Angela Merkel’s comments to the contrary.
Although the EU is frequently portrayed as, and likes to think of itself as, a family, it is a family which, and the preceding days have shown this, has a definite hierarchy and that hierarchy won’t tolerate defiance or dissent and if anyone does dare leave then they are in the EU firing line and they won’t be firing blanks. You would think, or hope, that in a family which genuinely cared about each of its members and genuinely had their best interests at heart, if one member or more decided that after thinking about the pros and cons they really didn’t want to be there anymore and would prefer to go their own way, then shouldn’t the EU ‘family’ listen? Shouldn’t they talk things through, hopefully make suggestions as to how to improve matters and address the disquiet, in the hope of accommodating or alleviating grievances? No-one is saying that’s easy, especially with so many differing vested interests across member states but if at the end of the day, the unhappy family member decided they really did want to leave, shouldn’t the family say, “We’re disappointed, we’d prefer you to stay but we understand you have a different perspective so we wish you well as you follow a different path but stay in touch etc.” Isn’t that what a family, albeit in a ideal world, is supposed to do? It doesn’t even have to be an ideal world, it just needs to be a world with a willingness to respect other opinions as legitimate.
Instead, those at the top of the EU decide that if one member wants to leave, they will allow no other member any encouragement to go the same way and are going to discourage them as much as possible. There will be no encouragement for anyone else in the family to take a different path even if that’s what they desire and instead they will be forced to remain in a relationship in which they’re unhappy, or split about membership. What this actually does is to perpetuate the disquiet in member states and suppress contrary voices, unfortunately suppressing voices only leads to more frustration and lashing out because lashing out is the only way some feel their suffocated voices can be heard. The modus operandi of the family head is to hit the leaving member hard for deciding they want to leave. Is this truly a family? If it is it’s a highly dysfunctional one, more akin to a Mafia family than the Waltons.
Nonetheless, amidst all the turmoil of the last few days there may yet be some positives to draw. We are still in the earliest days of this political and economic earthquake. There was always bound to be turmoil in the immediate aftermath of a vote to Leave, even if some Leave campaigners thought differently. No one with half a brain thought a Brexit vote would lead to anything other than turmoil. The question was never “Will there be turmoil?” but “How long will it last and what will the long term aftermath look like?” The hope and prayer is that the turmoil will be short term and temporary.
While much of Europe remains in lingering shock at the Brexit vote and this isn’t good for the financial markets, in other ways it isn’t actually a bad thing. It seems that many in the EU thought that with their referendum the British were huffing and puffing again but would inevitably choose to Remain because that’s what the Brits do isn’t it? They huff and puff and moan and complain but in the end they don’t have the guts to actually leave. So they were in shock at the result and are only beginning to realise that this is a big big moment in EU history and the shock waves will be felt for years to come, far and wide.
What the British Leave vote has shown, and what soundings from elsewhere in Europe have shown, is that there are other EU member states who are unhappy within the EU. This then has the potential to do some good within the EU with or without British involvement because there are some politicians and commentators who think Britain could still remain in the EU ‘in some form’ and while Article 50 remains untouched the UK could yet retain some form of involvement in the EU – the jury is still out on that one. Earthquakes uproot and overturn things thought to be staunch and immovable and this may yet be the case with the exit negotiations, despite the contrary noises from Brussels.
Who knows? Maybe exit may yet turn out to be exit-lite. Call me a conspiracy theorist but perhaps this was Leave’s plan all along. The only way to gain concessions being to scare the life out of the EU to the extent that the shock changes the political landscape enough to get them to offer what they otherwise wouldn’t? It wouldn’t be the first time people in shock offer what they wouldn’t under normal circumstances.
If the big businesses who have benefited so much from Britain’s EU membership put enough pressure on Merkel and co, deals may yet be struck which allow Leave to reclaim enough sovereignty, Remain to reclaim enough EU interaction, and the EU to remain intact, that all sides could claim victory and some measure of calm and unity be restored. Isn’t that what politics is about? Deals shaped in such a way that all sides can claim victory with minimal loss of face and public confidence restored. I have never been of the opinion that a Brexit vote must only lead to a Brexit government. As far as I’m concerned the only thing that matters is having the best minds we have charting the way forward, regardless of which referendum camp they were in.
The shock waves that the Leave vote has sent through the EU has the potential to shake the political ground up to the extent that much greater changes to the way the EU operates is now possible than would otherwise be the case. If the EU wants to continue with its ‘project’ (and there have always been both good and bad aspects to it) and it has ears open enough to listen to the grievances of its members, and if it wants to keep its ‘family’ together, then it could well stay intact, or relatively so, but with enough changes in place to both placate other disgruntled members and continue on its merry way.
Of course not everyone likes where that merry way may take it (rumours of a European Army, the United States of Europe etc) but this, more than any other time in recent history, is surely an ideal time to at the very least attempt to bring in changes to the EU from remaining member states. The worst thing the EU could do now is to close ranks and do what the UK is accused (wrongly in my opinion) of doing, becoming insular. If the cacophony of voices from within the EU, latching on to British discontent, is loud and persistent enough, who knows what positive changes could be brought it? If Merkel, Hollande, Juncker and co are politically savvy enough they can use this crisis to strength rather than further destabilise their project, and do it positively, by listening to voices of discontent and making concessions.
In fact making concessions to other member states where they wouldn’t make concessions to Britain would be seen by them as another way to punish Britain yet it may well strengthen the EU in a positive way. They could actually be seen as heroes, enabling a fairer family union that is actually fairer. Their ultimate victory would be to make the EU fairer, placate member states and keep Britain locked out. Britain leaving the EU doesn’t mean that the EU can’t still be a more successful entity by ironing out its more negative aspects. Admittedly signs of willingness towards such accommodation are slim but if we, and they, aren’t at least willing to consider such possibilities then frankly the bullying mentality wins, the Waltons are cast aside and the Mafia retains its grip.
The potential is there for Britian to succeed long term outside the EU and for the EU to be more of a happy family. The possibilities are there to be made and expanded. Whether the will is there is another question. We can only hope. We must hope and make sure that hope is turned into actual changes which matter.