Brexit, or the lack of imagination

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Matt Dunham/Associated Press

Since June 23, 2016, the United Kingdom has been confronting a substantial task to leave the European Union after decades of deep cooperation and integration. Over the last two years, the UK political elite, Tories and Labor alike, has demonstrated an absolute lack of imagination and illustrated the inability to think beyond their wishes of a return to an illusory lost exceptionalism. Three weeks prior the fatidic deadline of March 29, 2019, the British political elite is unable to decide on what is next for the UK, a soft Brexit (based on the agreed terms between the May government and the EU), a hard Brexit (no deal), a revocation of Article 50, or an extension of the Article 50. On March 12, the House of Commons rejected the government’s deal, followed on March 13 by a rejection of a no-deal Brexit paving the way for a potential request for a delay.

A delay for what? And towards what outcome? The UK and EU agreed back on November 14, 2018 on two documents: the agreement on the orderly withdrawal of the UK from the EU and the Joint Political Declaration on the framework of future relationship. One of the most contentious points for the UK in the withdrawal agreement is the third Protocol concerning Ireland and North Ireland known as “backstop,” agreeing to create an EU-UK single customs territory. The backstop is “an apt paradox for a problem that may not have a solution.” The backstop would keep the UK in both the customs union and the single market until at least 2020 during which Brussels and London would negotiate the terms of a trade relationship.

The Brexit vote was based on a series of lies and political manipulations over the relationship between the UK and the EU. The UK has demonstrated over its decades in the Union its ability to control sovereignty in areas considered of national sovereignty such as the national currency, immigration and judiciary affairs, and so forth. The UK used its opt-out rights in core competencies. The debate prior to the referendum was tailored around immigration/borders, supposedly high cost of the EU membership (money to be utilized to the Health and Human Services), and national prestige allowing the UK to reestablish its grandeur internationally.

Two years later, the illusion of a positive outcome, potentially being a hard Brexit, remains as a possibility. The lack of imagination has been so visible throughout the process and since the end of the UK-EU negotiations. The last four months have exposed the inability of a political elite to think, govern and lead. It has been months of political talks and votes in London with a Prime Minister losing time after time votes on the same document thinking that the outcome of a new vote on a same document could have a different ending. Furthermore, PM May has failed to lead and unite her party, let alone the nation, to agree on the terms of a departure, yet manages to survive no confidence vote and hold her position. This demonstrates another level of political folly. At what point the House of Commons massively rejecting May’s deal, on two occasions, think that keeping the same captain defending the same deal would lead to a different outcome.

In a case of a decision to extend the Article 50 and a reopening of the negotiations, two questions arise. First, are the 27 EU Member States convinced that new rounds of negotiation will lead to a different outcome? PM May said it clearly, “the EU will want to know what use we will make of such an extension.” And second, will the negotiating team from the UK be different a different one bringing new propositions with regards to Northern Ireland to the table? In the current deal, the EU has rightfully protected one of its member states, Ireland, and the core of the Union, the common market. It is quite unimaginable to have the EU undermining one of its members to accommodate one exiting. Furthermore, seeking an extension to the negotiations could poison the debate ahead of the European elections on May 23-26 and require the UK to hold a campaign for the European Parliament elections.

Now the organization of a new referendum on Brexit to put back the decision in the hands of the citizens would send a mix message. The new referendum would be less about democracy and more about the political elite hiding its inabilities to lead and govern behind another popular vote. Regardless of the outcome of the 2016 vote, the government had a mandate and failed to deliver, which has become a common trend across the transatlantic community. After three years of toxic rhetoric, the outcome of new referendum tipping in favor of a remain vote could be damaging in the long-term for domestic and European politics. Can the UK strive back in the EU after this tumultuous period like nothing had ever happened? An optimist could argue that the EU, the 27 capitals and the UK have learnt the lessons being on the edge of a precipice and are willing to move head with substantial reforms by deepening the integration process. Why not?

Theresa May back in 2016 said, “Brexit means Brexit.” The initial understanding was that the UK will be leaving at the end of the two-year period. Today, “Brexit means Brexit” illustrates a total lack of imagination, of leadership and policy-making. Over two years, the UK has been unable to think about its own future outside the EU. How can the UK be in any position of strength in negotiating future relationships with world actors? “forging a new role for Britain in the world”? and to legislate in re-drafting and voting on a new set of rules and laws post-EU? “Brexit means Brexit” has become the mantra of a lost nation.

(COPYRIGHT 2019 BY POLITIPOND. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. THIS MATERIAL MAY NOT BE PUBLISHED, BROADCAST, REWRITTEN OR REDISTRIBUTED WITHOUT PERMISSION).

Emptying the Spirit of the Union – Cameron’s Wishlist

Photo: Getty
Photo: Getty

British Prime Minister David Cameron finally sent his requests to the European Union in light of the upcoming referendum about the membership of the United Kingdom in the Union. In a letter addressed on November 10, 2015, to the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, PM Cameron laid out the areas wherein the UK will be seeking for reforms in order to satisfy the British demands. In some ways, this letter is the first step in starting officially the discussion between the UK and the EU prior the referendum in 2017.

Reforming the Union – Cameron’s Demands

In a letter titled, “A new settlement for the United Kingdom in a Reformed European Union,” PM Cameron identified four main areas where the UK is seeking for reforms.

The first area is Economic Governance. In this section, PM Cameron addresses the problem of a two-speed Europe caused by the Euro. On the one hand, there are the Eurozone members, and on the other the non-Eurozone members. Britain is concerned about “the integrity of the Single Market, and the legitimate interests of non-Euro members.” In other words, Cameron wants to avoid a power grab by the Eurozone members over the others. Cameron wants to see a discussion among the 28 Member States on issues related to the Eurozone that affect the Union as a whole.

The second area is Competitiveness. The UK wants to scale back the number of regulations limiting trade and ultimately the competitiveness of European products. In addition, Cameron wants to initiate “massive trade deals with America, China, Japan and ASEAN.” Ultimately, Cameron wants to lower the number of existing regulations and their ‘burden’ in order to boost productivity and competitiveness.

The third area is Sovereignty. On this particular theme, highly cherished by extreme right and right parties accross the Union, Cameron wants to bring several proposals. The first one, Britain does not want to be part of ‘an ever-closer union.’ So no political union for Britain. Second, Cameron wants to empower national parliaments, which could stop ‘unwanted legislative proposals’ taken at the European level.

The fourth area, and the longest of all, is Immigration. On the point, Cameron wants to limit movement of people as it creates too much pressures on British public services. If Cameron mentions the mass movement of people from outside to inside, he underlines that “we need to be able to exert greater control on arrivals from inside the EU too.” In addition, Cameron is asking for a restriction on distributing social benefits to individuals leaving on British soil.

In order to feel comfortable, Cameron is asking for reaching “an agreement that would, of course, need to be legally-binding and irreversible.” Even if the 27 EU Member States were to agree of these point, they would have to go through national discussion in order to accept a treaty change. This could increase the pressure on each Member States.

Cherry-picking, and Removing the Essence of the Union

In his daily chronicle on France Inter, David Guetta, underlined that the initial response from Europe to Cameron should be ‘best of luck in your new adventure outside the Union.” The UK since his entrance in the Union has not always been a Member State pushing for the deepening and widening of the EU. But as Guetta expressed “irritation is not a policy.” The Financial Times reports that “One European minister involved in the talks described the ‘British question’ as not addressing what the UK or Europe needs, but what Cameron requires ‘to successfully campaign’.” The 28 heads of states and governments will be meeting in December in order to address the British case and see where to start. However, it is quite difficult to sideline some irritation.

The initial response from Brussels was that finally the UK has clarified its positions and demands. European diplomats feel that with this exhaustive wishlist “they will not be ambushed at the last moment with fresh UK demands.” Many experts are arguing that the only major point of contention may be the fourth point on ‘immigration.’ Eastern European members, like Poland, would undeniably reject such point. But it should be a redflag in Paris and Berlin as movement of people is one of the most fundamental freedoms offered and guaranteed by the EU to European citizens. Once citizens are confined to their national territories, the spirit of the Union disappears.

Cameron’s overall plan – which could be conscious or not – is to remove the human and ideational components of the European project in order to transform it into an advanced trade agreement. PM Cameron’s vision of the future of the EU and UK is quite dramatic. The fact that Cameron wants to maintain three freedoms (capital, goods and services) but wants to limit the fourth one (labor) is quite dramatic. The Common Market was set up around the respect of the four freedoms. Cameron political vision is directly aligned with the ultra conservative British view of the world and understanding of the UK.

To some extent Cameron demonstrates that the British conservative political class has not evolved since the entry of the UK in the Union. Cameron’s vision of the European Union is simply a space of trade and transaction without any European identity. His vision and understanding of the European Union are too simplistic and dangerous to be left unanswered. European capitals will have to find the political courage to address London respectfully and highlight the added value of the UK in the Union. But European capitals should not play this dangerous game of emptying the essence of the Union.

(Copyright 2015 by Politipond. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission).

A Shameful Summer for Europe

Photograph: Philippe Huguen
Photograph: Philippe Huguen

It is difficult to look at Europe and its Member States and feel proud of their accomplishments and actions in the last six months. From the continuous migration crisis getting his coverage since April, to the ultra-nationalist national political campaigns (in Britain, Denmark, Poland), to the Greek fiasco, and now to the Franco-British clash over migrants held in a camp in Calais, European affairs have taken a turn for the worst. All these issues/crises share one factor in common: the inability by Europeans to control their present and shape their futures.

Migration – All the Roads Do not Lead to London

The question of migration is more than a European problem, it is a global tragedy. Reports, from newspapers, think tanks, NGOs, and other international agencies, all identify the current migrants as political, economic and environmental refugees.Faces of defiance and a despairing message as migrants prepare for the French onslaught on the Jungle These migrants are in fact for most of them coming from countries destroyed by war (Syria, Libya, Sudan, Afghanistan), by terrorism and political repression (Eritrea, Yemen, Somalia) and so forth. These migrants are traveling thousand of miles through the toughest conditions imaginable all in direction of one of the richest and most stable region in the world, Europe. As previously reported (read here and here), the routes to Europe are by the Central Mediterranean region in direction of Italy, or by the short distance between Turkey and Greece (more Eastern route). Once in Italy, the migrants just go North in direction of France, Germany and some Scandinavian countries. In Greece, migrants go North through Macedonia and then West in direction of France and Germany (see the map below)._82353692_key_migration_routes_624

Once on the European continent, these are the different routes and final destinations of most migrants as illustrated by a map produced by Europol:

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This massive migration wave is highlighting two problems: a human tragedy for all these migrants (the episode of Lampedusa and so forth illustrate the dangers of such journey); and a political tragedy of European inabilities to deal with this crisis seriously. Instead of developing a serious set of policies in order to adjust their national laws, the tensions have increased among neighboring Member States. For example, France and Italy had a rift over several hundred migrants being stuck in the border-town of Vintimille, and between France and the United Kingdom over what captphoto_1253605518858-1-0is described by London of an invasion of migrants located at the infamous so-called ‘Jungle’ camp near Calais. This camp is counting between 3,000 and 5,000 individuals (as a comparison, Turkey and Lebanon are dealing with camps from 1 to 2 millions refugees, so it is difficult to believe that one of the richest country in the world, France, cannot manage a camp of roughly 5,000 refugees). American and European media have covered in recent days a little more the camp, even though this precarious camp has existed for years and was preceded by the camp of Sangatte. Interestingly enough, all migrants in the Calais’ camp are not all trying to get to Britain. Some of them are trying to remain in France.

National Rhetorics and the Fear of the Other

The problem of migration – legal and illegal – is a central one for anyone wanting to understand the current political debates at the national and European levels. Even legal migration between the 28 EU Member States is a cause of domestic tension even though such sort of migration is directly connected to the freedom of movement, one of the four freedoms guaranteed by the common market.  So in the case of illegal migration, it is not difficult to imagine the tone of the debate.

Domestically, the radical parties (especially the extreme right) have risen above their former status of opposition parties, to becoming a shaping-force of the national debate. In the case of France, the Front National (currently facing internal family-feud) is now considered as one of the top french parties, with the Socialist Party and the newly-renamed right wing party, Les Républicains. The Front National (FN) has made its name by blaming all France’s troubles and decline on Europe, globalization and the immigrants. In the United Kingdom, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), led by Nigel Farrage, was as well an important actor framing Britain’s crises because of Europe and immigrants. His sudden rise, despite some disappointing results in the May elections, has forced Cameron’s government to talk tougher. Ensuing the June elections in Denmark, the anti-EU and anti-immigrant party, Danish People’s Party (DPP), has risen to the second rank of national parties. And these radical parties have only been identified because of the recent elections in each country. But other EU Member States, like the Netherlands, Hungary, Poland, Austria, Italy, Greece, and so forth, are as well dealing with a powerful extreme right political force changing the tone of the debate.

Now, two questions remain to be answered: First, to what extent are these extremist parties throughout Europe influencing the debate on migration? Second, are mainstream right wing parties eventually showing their true colors? For instance, the recent rhetoric emanating from London are quite worrisome. Prime Minister Cameron has had some24A20A8C00000578-0-image-a-20_1421106386798 tough words about these migrants ‘invading’ Britain. In July, PM Cameron compared the migrants stuck in Calais as a “swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean” and has been advocating for stricter immigration rules in Britain. Weeks later, British foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, made comments aligned with his leadership about the current migration crisis and claimed that Europe “can’t protect itself.” He continued saying that “The gap in standards of living between Europe and Africa means there will always be millions of Africans with the economic motivation to try to get to Europe.” In France, under President Sarkozy, the tone towards immigrants was very negative and aggressive. Sarkozy and his Minister of Interior, Brice Hortefeux, stole some of the narratives from the Front National either for political gain or by sympathy for such belief. For instance, in June 2010, Brice Hortefeux was fined for making racist comments towards a man of North Africa origins.

It is time that center-right parties finally opposed once and for all the xenophobic and anti-EU narratives advanced by extreme-right parties. If their electorates increase it is not because Europeans are becoming more racist or anti-EU, but that they are tired of a visionless, leaderless, and scared political class. All these radical national parties in Europe share this commonality of stating clearly what they think, even though it is not true (like linking terrorism to immigration; or opposing globalization and returning to a protectionist economy). In addition, the current socio-economic climate in Europe is propice to such rise as the center-right and left parties have been unable to real make the required changes in order to launch the economic engine.

Creative Thinking for a Complex Challenge

The fear of the immigrants has always existed and Europe is not the only continent to face such problem. The current political debate in the United States about securing the southern border with Mexico and the legalization of long-term immigrants will play an important role in the 2016 Presidential election. In the case of Europe, the flow of migrants continues to grow every year and require some serious discussion, reflection and policy change at the European level.

Credit: The New York Times
Credit: The New York Times

Europe is facing serious crises requiring long-term thinking and necessitating cooperation and solidarity. In trying to ‘control’ the influx of immigrants seeking refuge in Europe, the 28 Member States will have to agree at the EU level on a ‘real’ set of measures such as quotas per countries (all the MS) based on a 10 year plan, an increase in common border control, national and european reforms of the current laws on asylum, and eventually more international operations in order to stabilize the political situations in countries of origins.

These measures can only be agreed on if the national leaders are serious in finding long-term solution and are ready to defend such plan before their electorate. On the one side, European leaders have become visionless administrators enslaved by polling numbers and reelections. On the other, Europeans have to realize that solidarity will be necessary even in these dire economic times. There are not that many options and the influx will continue. The Europeans still have the time to open their doors to these migrants with cohesive European policies and real structures to integrate them in the different societies. Integration of these migrants is possible and necessary. Rejecting them will only widen the gap and push European cohesion to its limits.

(Copyright 2015 by Politipond. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission).

The Berlin Wall – The Centerpiece of European Integration?

Photograph: Rex Features
Photograph: Rex Features

The fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9th, 1989 is one of the most important geopolitical events of the late 20th century. It marks the onset of the fall of the Soviet Union, symbolizes the end of the Cold War, and launches a new round in the construction of the European Union. Germany, and especially Berlin, were celebrating on Sunday the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

On the one hand, the fall is a direct celebration of the freedom and liberty of the people from state-oppression. On the other, the fall of the Wall created a series of fears and concerns in Western Europe and the US wondering about: What would a reunified Germany look like? Can a reunified Germany be left unchecked? How can the West maintain strong ties with Germany? The answer was: incorporation of the reunified Germany into the Western institutional networks, meaning the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union (EU). In the case of NATO, a reunified Germany did neither affect its institutional design nor its principles, but it permitted Western powers to ‘control’ Germany on questions of defense and security. However, in the case of the EU, the reunification was an axiomatic moment leading to an unprecedented effort towards greater and deeper integration.

Even though the reunification of Germany triggered a new round in the integration process of the Union, at first Western EU Member States were extremely concerned of this geopolitical shift. Soon after the reunification of Germany, a year later, France and Britain understood the need to incorporate the unified Germany inside the European Communities (EC). But the period from November 9th, 1989 to the signature of the

Source: Madame Le Figaro
Source: Madame Le Figaro

Two-Plus Four Treaty (between the US, the Soviet Union, UK and France) on September 12, 1990, granting full sovereignty to Germany,  was very tense. At first, London and Paris were opposed to the reunification as they feared that it would upset the balance of power on the European chessboard. For instance, during a meeting on December 8th, 1989, Margaret Thatcher expressed her fears to her French counterpart, François Mitterrand, about the resurgence of a ‘Grand Reich.’ Additionally, France did not want to see its deep ties with West Germany being upset by a new Germany; while, the UK aspired to maintain its special relationship with the US.

Ultimately, the integration process of the EC was closely linked to the desire to ‘anchor’ the reunified Germany inside a European network of institutions, rules, principles and procedures. In parallel, Paris and London were disagreeing on the degree of European integration required. The 1986 Single European Act (SEA) laying out the foundation of the future European Monetary Union (EMU) and a 1990 intergovernmental meeting pushed the trend towards deeper political, economic and even security integration. The SEA established the common market, the heart and soul of the EU. London was not ready to accept deeper integration as it saw it as a threat to its national sovereignty (seems familiar?). Nevertheless, the 1992 Treaty of Maastricht, incorporating all these dimensions, was a solution to the ‘German dilemma.’ Following the fall of the Wall, “the Treaty of Maastricht became a priority in order to solidify the Union and integrate a reunified Germany inside Europe” (refer to Chapter 5 of Debating European Security and Defense Policy).

The construction of the European experiment took a sharp turn moving from the European Communities (EC) to the European Union (EU). In a matter of three years, the Maastricht Treaty strengthened and deepened the integration process of the European construction. Maastricht laid out the EU under a three-pillars system (see illustration below):

  • the first pillar, the European Communities, dealt with the Common Market and the four freedoms linked to it (under supranational decision-making process)
  • the second pillar, the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), offered the Union and its Member States an institutionalized external policy (under intergovernmental decision-making process)
  • the third pillar, the Justice and Home Affairs (JHA), dealt with the policies of the sector of justice and police (under intergovernmental decision-making process)
Source: Institute for Language and Speech Processing (ILSP)
Source: Institute for Language and Speech Processing (ILSP)

Undeniably, the European Communities was a passive geopolitical entity, principally focusing on trade and economics, throughout the Cold War. Such risk-aversion was possible for several reasons: NATO offering a security umbrella over the continent; and active Member States like France and the United Kingdom provided security and did not want to see the EC overshadowing their national sovereignty. As well, the European Communities was not design to be an active security and defense actor. With the end of the Cold War and the reunification of the Germany, the EU understood the importance to increase its role in geopolitics and foreign affairs. Despite the creation of the CFSP, it took almost a decade for the creation of the European Security and Defense Policy (ESDP). The 1990s demonstrated, once again, the European inabilities to secure its neighborhood. Additionally, the integration of a reunified Germany as a full NATO member soon after the fall of the Wall was an important moment in order to lower some of the transatlantic concerns about the future of Germany as a regional actor.

Lastly, the fall of the Berlin Wall symbolizes the end of an era for Western power, the victory of liberal democracy over communism (remember Fukuyama’s “End of History”) and underlines the power of individual freedoms in Germany and Europe. The fall of the Wall illustrates the end of the Cold War, which has appeared to be dearly missed in the BRITAIN-G8-SUMMITWest, especially in America. The Cold War was a period of relative stability, offered by the bipolarity of the world order (as theorized and advanced by neorealism), between two blocs, two models. 25 years later, American leadership, especially its most conservative/hawkish branch, is looking back at the Cold War with a certain degree of nostalgia. Today’s world does not hold such clear cut enemy and strategic approach to containing and/or confronting the enemy. All these narratives and actions are all intertwined inside this axiomatic moment of the Fall of the Berlin Wall.

(Copyright 2014 by Politipond. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission).