‘Fog in Channel – Continent Cut Off’ was a famous headline before the World War I. However, it still captures the deep-rooted insularity of the British.
This attitude towards Europe has skewed Britons’ understanding of Brexit, because Britain’s decision to leave the EU doesn’t just affect the UK. Britons tend to forget that it also came as a shock to the 27 remaining EU countries and, above all, to the unaccountable, corrupt Commission with its feather-bedded officials, living well on foreign tax payers’ money.
Commission dreams of ‘The Project’ and unstoppable progress towards ‘ever closer union’ and a ‘United States of Europe’ have come badly off the rails since 2016. It is timely therefore to examine just what Brexit means for Britain’s European partners and how Britain’s departure is viewed from the Continent.
It is not a happy scene.
As with most divorces, the first quarrel has been about money. Grandiose EU plans are doomed if the UK refuses to pay the £39bn settlement; it’s PM May’s most potent weapon. Brexit therefore confronts ‘Europe’ with a massive problem. Losing one of the biggest financial contributors to the EU means that the Commission’s budget will have to be rewritten and a lot of expensive projects shelved. (However, the Commission will fudge it: no honest accountant has signed off the EU’s ‘audited’ accounts for 21 years.)
The squeals of pain from the 27 have already started. Beggar-states such as Bulgaria and Romania are furious at not getting their handouts from Brussels for ‘EU-funded’ projects, and the net contributing countries – not many left, with the UK gone – aren’t happy either. Germany, Holland and the other contributors to the Brussels money tree are reluctant to cough up more to balance EU books. If you don’t believe that, listen to the German car manufacturers, the Spanish fishermen or the French farmers. They are distinctly disgruntled and alarmed by what Brexit means for them.
The truth is that Britain’s exit from the EU has proved a devastating blow to the founding fathers’ dream of a European superstate, run by unelected civil servants, because Brexit affects other nations, politics, people, and challenges the Brussels-based Commission’s control.
The remaining 27 member states have been forced to confront their own membership of the EU; and we tend to forget the mess that most European countries are in.
The EU was already heading towards a crisis even without Brexit. Across a continent beset by mounting problems, Britain’s departure is a stinging vote of no confidence in Europe’s collective future. Ken Clarke’s wish for Westminster ‘to become mere provincial council chamber in Europe’ has proved false. People across the Continent want to rule themselves, with their own borders and as individual nations. They are fed up with the EU meddling in their lives.
Now the suppression of nationalism, which has always been the bedrock of Euro-federalism, is being challenged. By its own admission the EU has suffered one of the most disastrous years in its history. It needs to reform quickly to avoid a head-on challenge, as governments throughout the continent face a backlash of anti-EU votes.
The EU’s leaders – Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel – have already seen their popularity ratings plummet to record lows. In Italy things are worse, as Rome’s government, one of the EU’s Big Four (France, Germany, Spain), now represents a serious anti-Brussels majority. Italy’s new ‘government of change’ openly defies Commission edicts on any Euro-budget, and refuses to accept EU immigration policies. Hardly surprising, as, thanks to the stranglehold of the German Euro, Italy’s economy is little bigger than it was 20 years ago, and youth unemployment is 32.5 per cent. The national debt stands at almost €2.5 trillion — over 130 per cent of annual GDP. That money can never be paid back and so Italy is heading for bankruptcy.
Italy is not alone with economic woes. Spain is in deep trouble, too. More than a third of young Spaniards have never had a job. This human tragedy is directly linked to membership of the EU, because the Euro has rendered large tracts of the Spanish and Portuguese economy hopelessly uncompetitive.
In Athens, the birthplace of European democracy, the long-running Greek tragedy continues. Membership of the Eurozone has ruined Greece, wiping out businesses, jobs and entire industries. The Greek economy has actually contracted; shortages and hardship stalk the streets, whilst Brussels dictates orders from afar.
Inevitably this growing economic crisis has now spilled on to the streets of Europe. In France, President Macron’s unpopular ‘reforms’ – like increased petrol tax – have encouraged citizens to protest in the traditional French way. The gilets jaunes (yellow vests) are rioting on the streets. But their protests are about more than just France. They are also about the EU, because Macron has become the main cheerleader for the EU now that Angela Merkel’s long Chancellorship is heading for the German knacker’s yard. Macron’s capitulation to the rioters with his curious cocktail of police brutality and concessions to rioters shows that the greatest crisis for the EU is the spreading challenge to Brussels from despised ‘ordinary voters.’
Spain’s experience reinforces this view. The bitter internal dispute between Madrid and the Catalan separatists – whose leaders either await trial at home or are in exile abroad – has exposed the simmering power of ‘the people.’ Brussels’ snub to the breakaway Catalans will not be easily forgotten. Like all the other unrest across the Continent, it spells out the EU’s dreaded ‘N word’ – Nationalism.
Even in safe, comfortable Germany, the nationalist far-right now poses a menacing threat to the cosy CDU-SPD order, with the electoral successes of the anti-EU Alliance for Germany (AfD) party. Also, In Belgium, ‘capital of Europe’ and headquarters of the EU, a political shambles is taking shape. Prime Minister Charles Michel resigned just before Christmas and now leads a caretaker government until fresh elections can take place in May 2019. He is leaving the screen whilst ordinary Belgians worries about chronic unemployment and Islamic immigration are stoking serious public unrest.
However, the most direct challenge to the authority of Brussels and the Commission comes from further east. There the situation is much more menacing, with the rise of openly far-right parties. The Visegrad Four: Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary are in a state of open mutiny, mainly over unpopular immigration diktats from Brussels. Hungary in particular presents an increasingly authoritarian alternative to the EU model of liberal politics.
Elections for the European Parliament in spring 2019 may prove a nasty shock to the EU elite as right-wing parties look likely to score significant gains. New populist politicians will emerge, making Nigel Farage look like a hand-wringing local vicar. Suddenly Marie le Pen’s vision of an alternative Europe – even a ‘Frexit’ – is becoming a possibility.
There is no question the EU is confronting a serious crisis – and Brexit is only part of it. In 2019 we are entering truly troubling times, with the EU heading towards a showdown as some of its member states may elect openly nationalist governments intent on defying Brussels. The problem is that the EU Commission is terrified of reform, still believing that every crisis is just another opportunity to push for ‘ever closer union’.
Europe’s diverse countries with their infuriatingly democratic electorates now seem intent on keeping their national identities and to hell with Brussels. Ironically, the unsustainable EU’s flagship euro is the weakest link. The Centre for Economic and Business Studies warns that the ‘internal contradictions’ of the euro will eventually force the Eurozone to either integrate completely or break up.
European law professor at UCL, Ronan McCrea, sums it up: ‘Brexit on its own isn’t the existential threat to the EU that other things are. Migration, a crisis over the rule of law in Hungary and Poland, and the Eurozone’s future – all three of these could destroy the EU ….’
With or without Brexit, the storm clouds are gathering. For the smug fat cats of Brussels an unhappy year has begun.