The most anticipated unexpected happened – Great Britain voted to leave the EU with the other foot too, which sent everybody in shock and awe – Brits themselves, the EU, and financial markets, who quickly remembered the 2008 financial crisis. And while the dust is still settling from the mighty quake, it is important we make several conclusions. The most important of them is that this is actually very good news for the EU in two directions. First of all it is very good, because British exit will serve pro-European forces, who never really found a way to retaliate against eurosceptics. In the very first hours after the results were announced the hot air balloons of those advocating leaving (the leavers) started bursting. The more informed of us knew from the very beginning that the leavers are basing their campaign on lies about the EU and its relations with Great Britain.
In the very first day after the Brexit, leading politicians from the leavers’ camp publicly admitted the falsehood of claims about the size of Great Britain’s payments into the EU, as well as of threats to the British healthcare system, or that the free movement of individuals will cease if Great Britain stayed within the common European market. Quite a few of the people who voted for leaving admitted to media that they did not realise the size of the disaster. And it is really a huge disaster – after the announcement of the results the First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon brought straight back to the table the request for an independence referendum. Voices for uniting with Republic of Ireland came from Northern Ireland, losses in financial markets equal Great Britain’s financial contribution to the EU. The first picture to overwhelm the sobering up from nationalistic intoxication Brit was that instead of the bad European Union starting to break apart, it was the British union that started to crack.
This is a very good lesson to the continent, where eurosceptic and nationalist parties in key EU countries were quick to request an exit referendum of their own. Even if it gets to such votes, eurosceptics would have lost serious amount of trust after it became clear that the British referendum is the result of lies, manipulation, bending of facts, and refusing an expert opinion. Moreover, if the economic effect is so severe after the mere announcing of the results, without the actual exit being a fact, to a country, which does not participate in the euro area or Schengen and has opt-outs on most of the key European policies, we could easily imagine what would happen should an euro area country with the size and importance of France, for example, decided to leave. The British referendum and reactions of the financial markets and investors in the country proved in practise that the decision to save Greece was correct.
At the burst of the bubble, another main culprit for the result was revealed – British media, which created a negative atmosphere and covered European reality with bias. The role of British tabloids should be the subject of a special research in order to establish the effect they had on voters’ choice and the one they will have on journalism in general. Traditionally, European subjects predominate in the euro area, for economic integration among member states is very strong and European citizens are not too likely to base their choice on emotions, because it is their jobs, mortgages, and businesses that will be at stake.
EU of short-term solutions is dead, long live the EU of long-term ones!
The second direction in which the British referendum should have a pronounced positive impact on the EU itself is putting an end to the current model of building the Union – the short-term approach. What did we learn from the British referendum? The vote was called by Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron. He surprised not just the EU, but British public as well with his famous European speech of three years ago, with which he announced the EU needed reform. Initially, the idea seemed good and well timed – after the euro area crisis the EU needed a reform to make it more effective and able to find solutions to crises. It became clear later though that the only thing Cameron wanted was to model the EU based on British dimensions – along the tightly cut British domestic policy. His Conservatives felt extremely threatened by the growing support for the otherwise marginal in the sense of political representation UK Independence Party (UKIP), led by MEP Nigel Farage.
Cameron’s initial goal was to win a second term, playing the eurosceptic card. Then he twisted his European colleagues’ arms by negotiating a deal, which has a very strong demoralising effect, and took up the role of a pro-European. Pandora’s Box had already been opened though. The duration of his pro-Europeanism was considerably shorter than the time he spent as a eurosceptic. David Cameron managed to hobble the European project by imposing himself on the other 27 member states, each of which has its own problems, which are not less, and in many cases even more important to the project. So, the EU spent the last three years manoeuvring between the British domestic political problems, the undying Greek crisis, and the newly arisen refugee crisis, which dealt the heaviest blow to the Union since the Second World War.
The British prime minister was followed by other member states too, whose leaders needed to survive heavy elections and so they often resorted to anti-European rhetoric. Voices against the EU grew stronger – music to the ears of Vladimir Putin and definitely not without his financial and moral support. In the first decades of its existence the EU was a project of long-term vision. All member states were aware of the stakes – peace on the continent. This is why they planned a Union which was to rise above the daily national politics and move member states en-block towards a better and peaceful future. In recent years, however, having considerably bulged by accepting states with differentiating levels of economic development, with different mentalities, and still confused by the change in ideologies, the Union turned into a short-term project – from one election to the next. To the point of having the most important European decisions be implemented with regard of where there will be elections and when.
The British referendum could put an end to that, because it showed clearly that short-term horizon is undermining the Union and destroying its foundations. It is impossible for an idea like peace and stability on the continent to be a ball in the game between national political powers. At the moment, Great Britain is sinking into a heavy political crisis after the referendum. In both leading parties – Conservative and Labour – processes of fracturing and seeking a culprit are starting. There is also a battle for the parties' leadership. Great Britain faces a long process of political stabilisation. First of all parties will need to recuperate and then start preparing for the next prime minister of the country, after David Cameron resigns in October. The new prime minister will have the difficult task of leading UK out of the Union.
The Brexit’s potential to unlock disintegration disturbances in the EU is not to be taken lightly. It is important to note, however, that in the Brexit case we are talking about a country, which is the most loosely tied to the Union. Countries sharing the common currency are the most-closely integrated, but countries outside the euro area also need the Union – some on geopolitical reasons, others on economic ones.
Now is the time for the Union to return to long-term planning. All 27 states agree they want to stay in the Community. This is a great start. Now they need to agree on how this is to happen. Up until now visions on the future extend only to the euro area. Work is ongoing on the first phase of the five presidents’ report published exactly a year ago. There are disagreements on the second stage, but not so much on the content of it, rather on the calendar – which step is to be done when. There are disagreements around the future of the entire EU. Some prefer it looser, a la carte, others believe that the way to go is towards federalism.
Discussions will begin in the following days, when leaders will gather for their regular summit (June 28-29), which will be dominated by a discussion of the Union’s future. It is difficult to forecast how these talks will end. One thing is certain – Great Britain will occupy all the Union’s attention and energy for several more years. The more Great Britain’s exit from the Union is procrastinated, the lesser the chances are for the EU to take advantage of the situation in order to seriously take up its future construction. At the moment, markets and political uncertainty in Great Britain are working for the EU. Leaders should concentrate and avoid delving in unnecessary detail. The biggest challenge is solving Jean-Claude Juncker’s riddle – how to keep the EU, while at the same time winning the next national election.
Busting the myths
A good starting point for clearing of the eurosceptic fog is speaking plainly and clearly, but most of all truly, about the EU. European leaders and national politicians need to conclude a pact for speaking honestly and openly about the EU, without lying or twisting facts. The British case in this sense represents a good starting point.
1. The undemocratic EU. This was one of the most often repeated myths during the campaign for the European referendum and I am certain this opinion is shared all over the EU, as latest polls also demonstrate. The ones to blame for this opinion of European citizens are ... European leaders. While searching for a solution to the debt crisis in the euro area and looking for the best recipe for pushing through painful reforms, which bring heavy political losses at national elections, European leaders brought to public space the difficult to understand mantra of democratic deficit or democratic legitimacy. The phrase gathered such momentum, that it even entered the five presidents’ report.
It is as void of substance, as it is removed from reality, for the manner in which the EU makes its decisions could in no way be called undemocratic. Many decisions could be named nontransparent, but in no case undemocratic. Every European decision mandatory goes through the Council of Ministers, through the European Parliament, through work-groups, including through national parliaments. Whether each country makes the national part of this process public to its citizens is a very important question, whose answer must also be given by the hundreds of journalists, who nowadays light-handedly throw the blame for the Brexit on the lack of democracy and the bureaucracy of the EU, without making it clear whether they witnessed even a single discussion of European legislation in the European affairs committee of their national parliament, let alone the discussions in the relative committees in the European Parliament.
The EU is among the most transparent organisations and works considerably more transparently than many national bureaucracies and governments. One should not however forget that the EU is not just the Commission, EP, or some other supranational institution. The essence of the Union are its members and the way they implement at the national level decisions made in Brussels. It is easy to find an answer to that as well, seeing how following heavy negotiations in the European Council, which went into the early hours of the morning, a national leader appeared in front of journalists for a national briefing and announced how he protected the national interest and won.
2. Member state laws are being written and enforced by Brussels. This is another very popular subject, which managed to haunt the consciousness of uninformed British citizens, who believed in a dictatorship from Brussels. The truth, however, is very different. The EC proposes legislation, which is then approved by member states after negotiations. Sometimes the European Parliament participates in these negotiations, but sometimes MEPs have just a consulting role. EC proposals go through work-groups that are attended by representatives, chosen by member states. Then the level goes up – the compromise achieved in work-groups goes to the level of ministers. Sometimes deliberations are public and can be seen online. All national positions on one legislation or another get voiced there.
In the European Parliament, on the other hand, all discussions are public – both in committees and in plenary. And often facing MEPs are the commissioners responsible, as well as national ministers, even prime ministers and presidents. European legislation is divided into different kinds, the most popular being regulation and directive. A regulation is strict law. It means that whatever is agreed, it is later directly implemented at the national level. The directive is flexible. It is just a framework. Member states change its shape as they see fit in the national legislative process. Quite often changes are so substantial that the directive becomes practically unrecognisable and this creates problems at the European level.
There is no European law being forced onto member states without their knowledge and consent. Could the lawmaking process be made more transparent? Of course. Could it become more democratic? Yes, but this depends on member states.
3. Brussels’ unelected leaders. Also a much repeated myth and just as untrue. Members of the European Parliament are elected directly by member state citizens. Members of the EC (Commissioners) are appointed by member states’ governments. How democratic is that depends on the level of democratic development in the respective member state. In some (alas rare) cases the candidate for a Commissioner is heard by the national parliament. In most cases, however, we are talking about most common national political haggling. Regardless, each member state envoy to Berlaymont is sent by governments with mandates given them by national parliaments. Those are all elected people, whom citizens trust to make decisions on their behalf.
The current European Commission is the first one to have its president elected in direct elections after competition with other candidates, following a procedure, which gained popularity as Spitzenkandidaten. Large European political parties nominated their candidates for EC boss, who were to go into debates with other candidates. The most democratic internal election procedure was that of the European Greens.
Further down EC hierarchy positions get filled via competitions, much as in member state administrations. On the Council of Ministers and the European Council sit ministers and prime ministers (presidents) who were elected by national parliaments or at direct elections. They have the mandate to make decisions on behalf of citizens. This means you cannot say their decisions are undemocratic. Whether later they report to national parliaments and the national public is a matter of national debate, not European one. In the case of Bulgaria, for example, the PM never gives account to Parliament for what has been negotiated in Brussels, never mind going there with a mandate for the position he is to uphold. But this is not a problem of Brussels, but Sofia. In The Netherlands, for example, all ministers appear in the national Parliament to give account after each Council meeting. European leaders also give account to the European Parliament after every summit.
It is curious that the subject of lack of democracy and not-elected bureaucrats, who make decisions on behalf of citizens, is raised by a state, whose “head of state” is an unelected monarch and whose upper house of parliament is filled with unelected lords with a lifetime term in office.
Myths are many and there are even especially created websites, dedicated to their busting. The important thing is that European leaders agree to stop using the EU as a weapon for settling political accounts, whether at a national or European level. This is the very thing, which has been destroying the Union in recent years, not its imperfections, which are undisputed. They are, however, a consequence of the slow process of integration of countries, which have often been enemies in a number of epic feuds over the last century. The lack of trust among member states, coupled with different economic development, creating imbalances in European economy, as well as the multitude of languages are serious problems for the EU, but in no case are they the thing which is destroying it. If the Union quits playing the lamb of sacrifice to national policy, perhaps the Juncker dilemma will be resolved and then eurosceptics will be disarmed. The problem is that those, who need to show the will for that have a horizon of just one term.
Translated by Stanimir Stoev