While most post-Brexit coverage has so far focussed on the unfolding domestic repercussions within the United Kingdom, it is equally important to turn to the rest of Europe where many issues remain unclear. Most seriously, the looming Brexit raises questions for the EU and its stated objective of building a closer, a peaceful, free, democratic, fair and prosperous Union.
Right now, the EU is certainly facing its biggest test (and there have been a few already throughout its history): With Britain leaving and Eurosceptic groups in France and the Netherlands already rubbing their hands over a further disintegration of the Union through similar referenda, it’s now either about devolution towards a single market zone or further integration into a deeper political Union. But don’t get fooled, a simple “carry on, Brussels” will not suffice in this time of crises.
Brexit now HAS TO be a boon for further BUT different European integration. The EU is in part responsible for the Brexit vote as it never really addressed its key founding mistake: its democratic deficit. The EU only ever was (allowed to be) a Union of nation states and never a political community of sovereign European citizens. It was the national governments (well, the powerful few among them) who complained about Brussels’ post-democratic technocracy while at the same time pulling all strings themselves in the European council. Subsequently, the delegation of sovereign competencies and their democratic control to the European level has, despite anti-EU rhetoric to the contrary, never really occured.
In short, the European Union is kaputt beyond repair and a United States of Europe based on the prevailing intergovernmental premise is not a sound option anymore.
Here lies the key dilemma for the European Union being wedged between high expectations from within and without, facing global challenges while nation states cling to their wavering sovereignties, unable to deliver effective action on issues, such as climate change, inequality and immigration and hence losing their constituencies to the fear mongering of nationalist charlatans. As long as there is war in Syria and Ukraine, refugees will come to Europe. Youth unemployment in Southern Europe is economically debilitating and the only remedy is further political integration in the Eurozone and not the return to the Lire or Peseta. In today’s interdependent and risk-laden world society, many Europeans still know and feel that they are only able to fare well if they stick together.
So what has to change? Ulrike Guérot, a polyglot Political Science Professor and Director of the European Democracy Lab, is currently presenting a very thought provoking idea in the debate. How about making the citizens the sovereign bearers of a European political community, a real European republic by letting them vote on the legislative and executive bodies directly and not through the detour of national parliaments and elections indirectly? Further, Guérot suggests far-reaching competencies for a European executive accountable to a European parliament (and not national governments) and 50 odd autonomous, cultural regions such as Alsace, Bohemia and Catalonia, organized according to a strong principle of subsidiarity. This idealised plan is far closer to “the Swiss model” of confederated Cantons than what many Brexiters had vaguely alluded to when campaigning to leave.
And how to we get there or to any other more, democratic European political union? In an interview worth reading the philosopher Jürgen Habermas made the strong argument that only a two-speed Europe with a core group from within the Eurozone moving ahead gives the project of a democratic integration of Europe a viable future. With further intergration developing, non-core members may then be enticed to join, similar to the process of the Schengen Agreement. As Habermas argues, “Germany will have to give up its resistance against closer fiscal, economic and social policy co-operation and France be ready to renounce sovereignty in these corresponding areas.”
After Brexit, German-French leadership together with Italy and the Benelux countries is more important than ever. Especially for Germany, much is at stake. For centuries the main economic and political strategic challenge on the continent was the “German question” in different forms. But the key problem always was how to accommodate a big, populous, economic, military and unified power right in the geographic centre of Europe in a stable and non-threatening way? The history of the European integration is thus the successful enclosure of Germany for its own betterment. No other Eurozone member benefitted in an equal way from the common market and single currency like the German export economy and there would have been no approval for German reunification despite French and British worries if not for locking the Germans in the EU.
For now, Habermas remains pessimistic about the chances of the core group model though, especially because of today’s German conservatives, the CDU, once proudly pro-European under former Chancellor Helmut Kohl, but not under Chancellor Angela Merkel, unless she is performing another of her overnight position changes on key matters, and her Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble. When, the day after the Brexit result, her deputy and Social Democratic Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier called for the six founding members of the EU (then the European Economic Community, EEC) to discuss the Brexit result, Merkel swiftly announced that the entirety of 27 EU members should come together over this. She knew that in such a large forum any talk about further bold integration would not get a majority.
Schäuble was recently quoted saying: “This is not a time for grand visions. (…) In principle, I am a supporter of deeper integration. But this is not the time. At a time of growing demagoguery and deepening Euroscepticism, Europe cannot just carry on as before.” He is right and wrong at the same time. Europe has to change its path now. But the best way to deflate Eurosceptics demagoguery about a return to the age of the nation state is to further European integration successfully through a Eurozone core group, while keeping open for ideas such as the European Republic with autonomous regions or similar suggestions such as the Democratic Union. Only with this democratic European vision on the negotiation table and in everyday conversations, the recent crises and the fundamental democracy deficit of the political Union can be overcome for a better future, which the citizens of the United Kingdom, if it still exists, are more than welcome to join.
Patrick Flamm is a PhD Student in Asian Studies and Politics and International Relations at the University of Auckland. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.