You could be surprised, but news from the EU summit of last week, dominated by the result of the British referendum of June 23rd, are actually quite good. There has not been such good news in the EU since before the start of the euro area crisis. For the first time in decades the European Union reacted adequately to a potentially large crisis. Following the Brexit, the 27 remaining member states reacted following the credo of the musketeers – one for all and all for one. This is a very rare event in European politics, which shows how important the Union is and that even such a serious shock like the leaving of a large and influential country is unable to shake it. Exactly one year after the Grexit (the Greek exit) quit being taboo and turned into real danger, member states faced the Brexit as one and managed to absorb it as just another point on their busy agenda.
During the two-day European Council in Brussels on June 28th and 29th, all 27 prime ministers and presidents said the same, with no exceptions – that Great Britain’s leaving is undoubtedly very sad news, but the Union moves forward; that there will be no formal or informal negotiations with the United Kingdom until it enters an official notification for triggering Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty; that the main negotiating position of the EU will be that access to the common market would mean acknowledgement of the four pillars of the Union – free movement of goods, capitals, services and people; that Great Britain needs to be given time to choose a new leader of the Conservative Party and therefore a new prime minister, who could file the notification, but that uncertainty should not last too long.
The signal sent by the EU was that there is no problem, or if there is one, it is with an address in London. At the first press conference on the evening of June 28th, institution leaders – EC boss Jean-Claude Juncker (Luxembourg, EPP), European Council boss Donald Tusk (Poland, EPP), and the one of the Dutch Presidency Mark Rutte – demonstrated an unusual and by all accounts totally sincere good mood.
I had not seen European scene veteran Juncker so joyful for years. The usually quite serious gentlemen Tusk and Rutte too could not hide their smiles. There were often jokes and teasers thrown in the air during their press conference, not all of them addressed at Britain. There was, of course, sarcastic gloating (by the EC boss) addressed at British eurosceptics. The message of all three of them was that the show must go on without Great Britain. Juncker’s merriment was due, in his words, to the fact that member states’ leaders demonstrated willingness and readiness for the EU to continue with its agenda as before. It was clear from his reactions that to him the Brexit is actually a great failure for eurosceptics. There will be a conversation about the future, but for now no treaty change is foreseen on the agenda nor any gathering of a convent on the Union’s future. All were of the same opinion that now is not the time for the Union to start dealing with itself again and discuss what it should be. There is a programme, that should simply be followed.
Talk was sober, with no unnecessary emotion, as if it was about something that is truly quite normal in the EU, regardless of having the procedure for leaving of a member state invoked for the first time in the 60-year history of the Union. A high-ranking source from the EU told euinside that he fears no new ideas for the future – the more, the better. The problem is not in ideas, but the way they are implemented, he said. The source was among those not hiding their joy of Great Britain leaving – one large irritant less to have. The same source pointed out that Great Britain received the best possible deal in February, when in the name of the country’s staying within the EU everyone put in flexibility, going well beyond legal options. According to the high-placed official, the EU truly did all it could. Rules were bent to the maximum. His appeal was for the EU not to be blamed for British problems.
There were many who said that what happened in the United Kingdom was a serious blow to populists and eurosceptics in Europe. Everyone wishing to leave the common market should see what is happening in Great Britain, said the Dutch prime minister, referring to the record economic losses for the country after the release of the result of the referendum. What is more, President Tusk said that the negative economic effects of Brexit on the Union are far lesser than expected. French President François Hollande emphasised on the fact that now people should really start being careful of what the consequences of their decisions will be before, not after the vote. The Bulgarian PM also pointed out that the Brexit is a warning to populists, and the boss of the Italian government, Matteo Renzi, was even more direct by saying that the victim of populism is Jo Cox – the British Labour MP who was murdered a week before the referendum. Renzi also said that in Italy the Five Stars Movement is like Nigel Farage, and Lega Nord’s leader Matteo Salvini was compared to Marine Le Pen.
The most important conclusion of last week summit is different, however, and it springs above daily issues like the economy, political differences, and disagreements on key common European issues. It is the question of “Why do we need the EU?”.
Cameron needed to lose the EU in order to understand it
One of the most remarkable events of the two-day summit was the catharsis of the outgoing British Prime Minister David Cameron. The man, who started it all, who warred with the EU at every European Council, for whom national victory was the main reason for travelling to Brussels, experienced a true awakening. In a prolonged press conference on the evening of June 28th, he opened his speech in the filled to the brim British briefing room with nostalgia. “They [summits] can often be long and frustrating and difficult, but when I've been attending these Councils I've always remembered that this is an organisation, that this is a formula that brought together countries which not that many years ago were in conflict and in spite of all the frustrations, I've always found it very reassuring that we've found a way to talk and to resolve our differences in dialogue and in argument”, said the British prime minister.
Further on he continued by expressing a wish the British citizens, poisoned by hate for the EU during the referendum campaign, could somehow witness the dinner of leaders and hear what they said about Great Britain. He wished that British citizens could hear the words of Estonian PM Taavi Rõivas of how the Royal Navy helped for the country’s independence 100 years ago, or the words of Czech PM Bohuslav Sobotka, who reminded that Great Britain was a home for the Czech people, running from persecution in Czechoslovakia in 1948 and 1968. The countries of Eastern and Central Europe, whose citizens turned into public enemy number one for Great Britain in the last few years, still feel in debt to Great Britain for the fact that it stood by them when they suffered under the yoke of Communism, as well as for the support for EU membership, further said the British PM.
There were warm words too from French President François Hollande, who reminded of French and British soldiers who died for the liberty of the continent, for democracy and the values we share. Cameron listed more words from European leaders and he looked like he just found out what the EU is and why sometimes it is difficult to reach an agreement, and why it takes long days and nights. This said, Cameron did not express any regret for his decision to call a referendum, just for the result. He insisted the referendum had to happen. “You cannot simply leave to parliament decisions about the nature of the way in which we are governed. Those are ultimately, I think, for the people”, he said.
It was also after the referendum and spending six years in the European Council that David Cameron realised why the common market and the free movement of people are intrinsically connected. “Part of the single market is saying to countries that come in to the single market, that maybe much less wealthy than we are, that may have escaped the ravages of communism not that long ago, that they will get some assistance to come up to the level of others in the EU. So, these things go together. I think sometimes in Britain we think of these things as separate options and that if you want the full benefits of the single market that you need to be involved in every part of it”.
The EU is once again a peace project
And it is exactly this that is the good news from the June European Council – everyone was unanimous that the Union continues to be a peace project. This was also written in the statement of the 27 – “The European Union is a historic achievement of peace, prosperity and security on the European continent and remains our common framework”. Not only was this written in the declaration, but many leaders repeated it during their national briefings. It was most emotional in the European Parliament before the summit. The leader of the largest political group in the European Parliament – that of the European People’s Party (EPP) - Manfred Weber (Germany) was the big surprise during the debate, for he made a truly emotional speech, in English at that.
"The politicians who fought for Brexit had the privilege to live in a Europe without walls, without nationalism. They are now erecting new walls", he said and continued: "Yes, it is a victory for the populists. The jubilation of the nationalists on both sides of the Channel shows us: Europe’s future is now at a crossroads. The demagogues, from the left and from the right, want to destroy Europe, and since Thursday [the 23rd] everybody in Europe must know what is at stake: division or cooperation, walls or bridges, nationalism or Europe. And on one thing we must be clear: today, there is no EPP, no Liberals, no Socialists, no Greens. Today, only one thing counts: we, the vast majority of this House, stand for the idea of a united, peaceful and tolerant Europe, and the populists should know this. We stand by this Europe today more than ever before", added the German MEP and got repeated rounds of thunderous applause.
Former Belgian prime minister and now leader of the Liberals parliamentary group Guy Verhofstadt is usually an avid speaker. June 28 was no exception, but his speech this time had a different focus, causing strong approval in the plenary hall. He said that it is not that difficult for him to stomach the British nation’s decision, although he disagrees with it.
"What makes it so hard for me – and I think also for the other group leaders and for everybody here in this House – is the way it [Brexit] succeeded. The absolutely negative campaign, Mr Farage’s posters showing refugees like in Nazi propaganda… I never thought it was possible that somebody in this House should do a thing like that. Also the lies on migration and the lies that ‘Turkey will join the Union next week’ or the lies about the GBP 350 million that would return immediately to the National Health Service and now does not go back to the National Health Service. It is that climate of fear that has been created and that negative vision that has been created that is the most shocking thing about what happened in Britain, not the choice of the people. Because the choice of the people is democracy", also said Mr Verhofstadt.
Cameron has left, but Orbán remains
The second day of the summit passed without Great Britain, which in itself was a strong signal that the Union is moving forward, as if having not noticed that meanwhile a member has dropped out. There are several important points, agreed on at June 29th. The first one is that it would not be just the Commission, but all three European institutions that will be active participants in the negotiations on Great Britain’s leaving, after it activates Article 50. Firstly, there was discontent among the 27 about which institution is to be the leading one, with some (Bulgarian PM amongst them) demanding that the European Commission leads the negotiations, for it has the greatest capacity and experience for the job, while others insisted the Council had the leading role. As is usual in the EU, a compromise was reached.
Negotiations will be conducted by the EC, but control over them will be exercised by the European Council. Some very good news was the fact that all were unanimous that the European Parliament needs to play an equal part. This is a signal the EU remains united and cohesive. The second piece of news from the summit is that the 27 will convene for an extraordinary summit in mid-September in Bratislava, to discuss the Union’s future. They all made it clear that no thunderous ideas are to be expected then, but rather reaching an agreement on what has already been agreed on. Serving as a guiding light will be the strategic guidelines, which the European Union has for the first time in history adopted after the European Parliament elections in 2014. The Union’s main priorities should be economy, developing the common market, cutting red tape, security, and migration.
The latter is something that divides leaders, but this has not changed after the Brexit, although Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán announced at the end of the summit that the true culprit to blame for the Brexit was namely migration and more specifically the inadequate approach of the EU to the problem. Although frictions between the Visegrad group and the rest of the EU on several key issues to the Union remain, the four Central European states sent out an important signal to all. In a separate declaration, following the summit, the PM’s of the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, and Hungary pledge allegiance to the European project as a “natural, secure and forward-looking framework for our common future based on mutual cooperation. In a Union, we are stronger together”, says the declaration. It also recommends placing the stress on a better Europe, rather than discussing more or less Europe.
The document also mentions European values, but the way they are perceived in Central and Eastern European countries is and will remain a major source of tension in the EU. Much greater than the Brexit. In short – the EU continues as before. There will again be talks about a multiple-speed Europe, there will again be drama and crises, there will again be differentiation based on several axes – North/South, East/West, new/old, but the positive effect of the British scenario is that it reminded the EU why it was devised and what the stakes are. The June European Council of 2016 will remain in history as the summit, at which the EU was, perhaps for the first time, truly and absolutely united. It will keep walking its path with small steps, faltering and unsure, until mental, economic, and social differences between member states start to fade out. Later, steps might become larger and bolder.
Translated by Stanimir Stoev