by Daniel Guéguen*
This small book made a big impact in the press. Its key message was simple. Starting from the premise that the accession of Sweden, Finland and Austria in 1995 planted the seeds of the European Union’s dilution, I argued that the enlargement process should be put on hold in order to achieve the unified Common Market built by Delors. In short, remain at 15 Member States for as long as possible, encourage the new democracies of eastern Europe to organise themselves, make the single currency conditional on a prior harmonization of tax, welfare systems and budgets, and prioritize the Community preference over a globalized free-trade approach.
The opposite has happened, and today we are paying the price. I never believed a ‘yes’ to Brexit would happen, since it seemed to me unthinkable that voters across the Channel would decide not only to leave the European Union, where they enjoy a comfortable position (including budget-wise), but also to start a chain reaction leading to a pro-EU Scotland demanding its independence and even to Northern Ireland re-unifying with the rest of Ireland. And let’s not forget the pressure that will come from people all over Europe to have a similar vote on their country’s EU membership.
Reckless initiatives organised by discredited leaders
For 20 years, the European Union has rushed into everything. First, there was the acceleration of enlargement. Already finding it hard to deal with 15, the EU expanded to 28 Member States, becoming totally unmanageable. But to make things worse, this careless expansion was accompanied by the creation of a single currency poorly conceived and poorly managed, making it an inevitable failure in the long term. After all, how can you sustain a single currency without tax, budgetary and welfare harmonization; where growing gaps in competitiveness persist between the good students (Germany and the former ‘Mark Zone’) and the bad students (the southern countries and France)?
These two priorities, inadvisable and self-destructive, have themselves been accompanied – for 20 years – by an obsession with free-trade, from which our agriculture has not recovered; by a hijacking of science via the precautionary principle, making the EU an island where any technological or genetic advance in the agri-food sector is rejected; and by an endless slide from a political vision of the EU towards a bureaucracy without soul or direction. All this against the backdrop of leaders poorly selected, sometimes incompetent, always powerless. Once a great mobilising project, the European Union – even for federalists like myself – has become something people are rejecting in its current form.
Just like in 1940: defeat, but with a spirit of resistance!
The post-Delors years have gotten worse and worse, with Commission Presidents poorly chosen or
rather well chosen to do badly or do nothing at all. The list is long: Santer, Prodi, Barroso I and II, and
now Juncker. The Juncker Commission, now in place for 18 months, has got everything wrong. Whether on Grexit or Brexit, a proactive approach on these issues was required, to see them as an opportunity and not a threat. Making Greece leave the Euro while cancelling the country’s debt and assisting its recovery would have been the right EU solution for sustaining the single currency. Instead, the Greek crisis goes on, still unsolved.
The same goes for Brexit. Rather than engage, convince and reform as he should have done, Mr Juncker did not take any initiative, to avoid antagonising Mr Cameron and British voters. Already slowed down, several dossiers were put on hold. The UK referendum should have been used as an excellent opportunity for debate about re-structuring the European Union around a two-circle system: the federally-minded Member States in the first circle, and a second circle for countries content with a trading relationship. Far from being a problem, the referendum campaign could have been a chance to re-define and re-organise the EU. Instead…
On this morning of 24 June 2016, I do not feel bitter like the citizens of Europe in May 1940 when they saw the German panzers bypassing the Maginot Line! France was caught unprepared. Today also, the EU has been caught unprepared and hopefully the leaders who have failed will – like in 1940 – be thrown out by a wave of resentment. But let us remember that 24 June is only one week away from the spirit of resistance of 18 June 1940. Nothing is ever lost. This crisis is an asset. We pro-Europeans have a duty not to give up, not to be discouraged. But we also have a duty to revolt against this EU indecision we have been battling for 20 years. It is up to us to organise, ommunicate, persuade and join forces. Everyone has their role to play.
*Daniel Guéguen is President of PACT European Affairs and Professor at the College of Europe