Sunday 11 December 2016

Whisper it, but EU leaders see Brexit as an opportunity for ever-closer union

Kim Sengupta

Published 24/06/2016 | 02:30

A man carries a painting at a polling station in north London. Photo: Reuters
A man carries a painting at a polling station in north London. Photo: Reuters

"Our challenge, the day after, is twofold: to avoid contamination caused by Brexit and restart immediately a positive project for Europe," declared Emmanuel Macron, the French economic minister.

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"The European project cannot only be a system of abolishing rules. It will be the end of the ultra-liberal Europe that (Britain) pushed us into, a Europe without a political plan, centred on its domestic market."

Of course, Mr Macron stated that he wished that the referendum vote in the UK would be for Remain, if only so that Britain does not turn into "another Guernsey", a trading post on the edge of the Continent. But, even if that happens, he added, France will take the initiative on a new dynamic for a "positive project" for Europe, so there can be no doubt where the future lies.

This was one of an increasing number of statements by public figures in the European Union who see Brexit as an opportunity - allowing at last other member states to accelerate the "ever-closer union" which the United Kingdom has staunchly opposed over the years.

Those in the European Union seeking greater economic and political integration have been rather cautious about voicing their views. This is partly because it was felt that it would have provided the Leave campaign in Britain with ammunition. But there was also recognition that there was growing antipathy towards Brussels in other member countries as well.

The Dutch voted in April, rejecting, in a referendum, the European Union's proposed association agreement with Ukraine. Last December, the Danes voted to keep its opt-outs on judicial matters, even if it cost the country membership of Europol. Last July, the Greeks voted against the bailout package organised by the European Commission and the IMF.

But there is the growing view, among some, that controlling the danger of "contamination" Mr Macron raised could be presented as a valid reason to start taking corrective steps.

"There is a need to guard some important principles, some important values," a senior European Union official said in Brussels last week. "It will not be acceptable to have states demanding the exceptionalism that the UK had enjoyed. Stopping that happening may need acceleration of some of the process of greater integration. It can be a powerful message."

The belief that the European vision has become too diluted is deeply felt by many senior Eurocrats. Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission chief, bemoaned: "In former times, all those implied in the project were full-time Europeans. Now we have too many part-time Europeans. That is a problem because some of our colleagues in the European Council are listening exclusively to their national opinion. "

But, even some of those who were "full-time Europeans" are urging caution on "ever-closer union". Wolfgang Schauble, the German finance minister, has long advocated that an integrated Europe would be far better equipped to face global challenges. He even proposed during the eurozone crisis that the EU should have a uniform fiscal policy and appoint a joint finance minister.

But Mr Schauble, an important ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, has now warned against a rush to further integrate if Britain leaves, and declared he would oppose such a move.

"We couldn't simply demand more integration as a result of a Brexit. This would be crude; many would be right in asking whether we politicians have still not understood," he said.

This would be the case if Remain won, but with a small majority.

"We should understand it as a warning and a wake-up call that we simply can't go on as before."

Irish Independent

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