Best of the Week #10 The future of European integration

Awhile ago I was recommended to write a post on the future of European integration. At the time I had just completed a module on the subject at university. But since I had not performed as well in it as I hoped I would, I felt like I didn’t have the expertise to treat the subject properly. Moreover, the increasing volatility of politics has made the future hard to predict. What I can do is outline the vision Europe’s leaders have for the EU, and give my response to them, as well as draw comparisons between the vision of the EU27 and the UK’s future after Brexit.

This week’s article comes from the prime ministers of the Netherlands, Denmark and Finland- three wealthy and politically stable EU member states. The overall gist of their vision is one of stability, continuity and common sense reform; building on the successes of current levels of European integration, rather than trying to do anything too radical. For the three leaders, the dream of a European superstate is a silly fantasy that isn’t going to happen, even if it’s desirable. But equally, they see no reason to abolish the existing aspects of the EU that enjoy popular support, such as financial passporting rights, the absence of customs checks, or Eurotom. For Europe to thrive, both the EU and individual member states must step up to the challenge. A pragmatic approach is needed, where policy areas are made either on the EU level or the nation state level, depending on which would be most effective. The EU cannot continue to be a scapegoat for the failure of its member states; if a country suffers from too much debt or underinvestment in education, it cannot blame Brussels.

I’m very impressed at the maturity and thoughtfulness of these three leaders. They don’t engage in insults or conspiracy theories. Their solutions are practical, realistic and evidence-based. Most importantly, they remain calm in what remains quite a challenging time for Europe. Given Brexit, it would be tempting to assume that the EU is hopelessly flawed and needs a radical overhaul. But the fact is, the UK has always been the most Eurosceptic member state, even when its economy was doing relatively well (until recently.) In particular, freedom of movement has always been unpopular here, but not anywhere else. You don’t get Germans or Swedes protesting against EU migrants, even when they make up a higher proportion of their populations than they do ours. So there’s no need to get rid of any aspect of European integration that has popular support, even if British people don’t approve of it.

The level-headedness of these prime ministers couldn’t be a greater contrast to the mess that is the state of Britain’s leaders. On the one hand, the governing Conservative Party is a laughing stock on the world stage. A host of negotiators, both British and European, say that we are totally unprepared for the negotiations, and have unrealistic prospects about their outcome. Our leaders have insulted the EU, telling it to ‘go whistle,’ and even accusing it of trying to undermine our election. The idea that centre-right Jean Claude Juncker could be in favour of hard-left Jeremy Corbyn is blatantly absurd, yet the prime minister believes it regardless. But on the other hand, Labour’s leadership seem just as deluded on Brexit. They seem to believe we can have all of the benefits of the Single Market while leaving it, which isn’t the case at all. The more intelligent Labour MPs (including my local MP) have been sidelined by Corbyn’s unexpected success in the most recent election. The only consistently pro-European party, the Liberal Democrats, are still a mere shadow of their former selves.

Like these three leaders, I’m not a European federalist, because I don’t think a European nation is workable given the size and cultural diversity of the EU. The problem in Britain is that everyone in the EU is perceived to be a federalist, except us. Nothing could be further from the truth. The are a few federalists, of course, but there are also a few communists. Just because some people hold a particular view, doesn’t mean everyone does, and it certainly doesn’t make it likely to happen. The fact is, any significant transfer of power to the EU would require a treaty change, which as a member state we could veto. These three prime ministers also outline their opposition to treaty change here.

The misperception of the prevalence of federalist ideology is only one aspect of how the British people were misinformed. If they had heard more arguments from the likes of these three men, perhaps Brexit would never have happened. The EU aside, the governments of these countries are not all that different from David Cameron’s administration. They both value balanced budgets, stability, free trade and much more besides. They are certainly closer to the centre of British public opinion than the likes of Nigel Farage or Liam Fox. But what distinguishes them from Britain’s pro-Europeans is their ability and willingness to outline a positive vision for the EU and its nations, rather than simply warn about the consequences of leaving. Most British people seem embarrassed to be ideologically pro European, even if that is what they are. Equally, unlike the Conservative Party, they do not blame the EU for their own failures. The main problems with Britain’s economy- low productivity, high house prices in the London area, and a regional imbalance in wealth creation- all have nothing to with the EU. When they persist and perhaps worsen after Brexit, the fallout will be anger and a feeling of betrayal.

I hope the vision of these three leaders materialises, and I suspect it will. Contrary to the predictions of many Leave supporters, the EU is remarkably united. It will continue to build on the successes of the Single Market to new areas, particularly digital technology and energy, to promote competition and choice across borders. The biggest challenge to the EU is the Euro, which the leaders fail to mention. The Euro has clearly been a success for many nations, even poorer ones like Estonia and Slovenia, which is why it is as popular as ever. But for some, Greece especially, it hasn’t worked as intended. Although Greece should honour its debts, it should also be allowed to leave the Euro if it wants to.

Because I’m British, I want Britain to do as well as possible. So I hope the Leave campaign is right that Britain will thrive outside the EU, or at the very least, not be at the bottom of the European economic growth table for much longer. It’s almost impossible to say for sure how things will turn out. But for now, I suspect that if Britain thrives in the future, it will be despite Brexit, not because of it.