I don’t normally lift entire articles, it is very bad manners but I think this article in Der Spiegel is important for those in the UK attempting to understand the EU and Europe’s position regarding Brexit.
For the last supper, quail salad is served. It’s 7:30 on Tuesday evening, and the leaders of 27 European Union countries — without British Prime Minister David Cameron — are scheduled to meet the next morning. A whiff of nostalgia is in the air, even if everyone is angry with Cameron, who because of a power struggle in his party, didn’t just gamble away his country’s EU membership, but may ultimately have triggered a political meltdown in the proud United Kingdom.
Cameron is buoyant, doing his best to avoid appearing as the tragic figure he has now become. His counterparts from across the EU are tactful enough to keep quiet about what they really think of the outgoing British premier. They speak of Britain’s historical accomplishments — at a time when the country, after 40 years of EU membership, looks to be leaving the bloc.
Taavi Roivas, the youthful prime minister of Estonia, who always sat next to Cameron during European Council meetings, expresses his gratitude that British soldiers ensured his country’s independence 100 years ago. French President François Hollande recalls how British and French soldiers fought side-by-side in World War I. The Irish prime minister notes that his country was at war with England for almost 1,000 years and that it was really only the EU that brought lasting peace.
And what about Cameron? He says that he wouldn’t do anything differently if he had it all to do over again. It wasn’t a mistake to hold the referendum, he tells the bewildered gathering, but the EU leaders refrain from contradicting him. Perhaps one important element of the European project is that it is no longer seen as necessary to respond toevery folly. Only at the very end of the evening, when an EU diplomat is asked whether Cameron was presented with a departing gift, did he answer laconically: “He got a warm meal.”
By the next morning, no one is thinking of Cameron anymore. He made history, if involuntarily, but history has now moved on from the British prime minister. The vote in favor of Brexit, after all, hasn’t just convulsed British politics, it has also set the stage for the next monumental power struggle within the EU.
On one hand, that struggle is about the question as to how uncompromising the EU should be in hustling Britain out of the union. For those in favor of a strong and powerful EU, for those who always saw the UK as a bothersome obstacle in their path, the British withdrawal process can’t proceed fast enough. Plus, French President Hollande and others want to use Britain as an example to show the rest of Europe how bleak and uncomfortable life can be when one leaves the house of Europe. Hollande, of course, has good reason for his approach: The right-wing populist party Front National has threatened to follow Cameron’s example should party leader Marine Le Pen emerge victorious in next year’s presidential elections.
Power Struggle in the EU
But there is more at stake than just the treatment of Britain during the Brexit negotiations. The more important question is how Europe will look 10 or 15 years from now — the question as to whether the project of an “ever closer union,” as optimistically formulated in the Treaty of Lisbon, will be continued. Or will Europe pivot back toward the nation-state, possibly even with the return of powers and competencies from Brussels to the governments of EU member states?
It is a power struggle between two opposing camps, both of which see Brexit as an opportunity to finally change Europe to conform to the vision they have long had for the bloc. The protagonists of an institutionalized Europe are Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and Parliament President Martin Schulz. On the other side stands the majority of Europe’s heads of state and government, led by Angela Merkel, who has created an alliance on this issue with those governments in Eastern Europe with whom she was at such odds in the refugee crisis just a few months ago.
The battle for Europe’s future begins early on Friday morning, not even two hours after the result of the Brexit referendum became clear. At 7:30 a.m., Schulz joins a conference call with Sigmar Gabriel, the leader of Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD), of which Schulz is a member, and Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the German foreign minister and also a senior SPD member. Schulz begins by saying that his heart has been broken by the British vote, but then goes on to make clear what is at stake: “If we now allow the British to play games with us, the entire EU will fly apart,” he says.
That sentence sets the tone. It is a strategy not just propelled by the fear that other EU member states could seek to follow the British example. The hope is to get rid of the British as quickly as possible since the country has long been one of the most adamant opponents to all forms of greater EU integration.
At 8:15 a.m., Merkel grabs for the phone in the Chancellery. She spent the morning following the referendum returns at home in her apartment and she is shocked by the result. She doesn’t have a plan B and now Merkel wants to play for time so she can develop a strategy. In contrast to Schulz and Juncker, she doesn’t believe that Britain’s departure from the EU is a foregone conclusion. For Merkel, the British have always been an important ally in the fight against an overly powerful EU and against overly lenient fiscal policies of the kind favored by France and countries in southern Europe. On the other end of the line on Friday morning is Horst Seehofer, the powerful governor of Bavaria and head of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party to Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Seehofer has a similar view of the situation to Merkel: Treat the British amicably, don’t rush them and play for time. And immediately choke off all efforts aimed at “more Europe.”
Stronger, More Independent EU
At 8:45, the SPD posts a position paper on its homepage called “Re-Founding Europe.” It was written by Schulz and Gabriel before British voters headed to the polls for the Brexit referendum. In the Chancellery, it is interpreted as it is meant: as a challenge to Merkel’s policies. Europe now needs the courage to “risk something grander,” the paper reads. Merkel would like leadership in Europe to run through its member states. Schulz, though, like Juncker, would like to transform the Commission into a “true European government.” “We need an ambitious and powerful thrust and not a timid patchwork,” the paper argues.
Schulz and Juncker have long been working towards limiting the influence of European heads of state and government in the EU, wanting instead to develop a stronger, more independent union. That is the nucleus of a package they agreed to one late night in May 2014. The deal came following months of campaigning ahead of European parliamentary elections, with Juncker as the lead candidate for conservatives across the EU and Schulz in the same role for European Social Democrats. Juncker won and became Commission president while Schulz remained in his role as president of European Parliament. On that night in May, the two pledged to cease working against each other and to join forces to ensure greater powers for the EU — and to ensure that the European Council, made up of EU member state leaders, loses influence. It was a pact against Merkel, who would like to have prevented Juncker from becoming Commission president.
At 1 p.m. on the Friday after the Brexit referendum, Merkel makes a statement to Berlin journalists in which — in contrast to Schulz — she does not demand a rapid British withdrawal. One shouldn’t “draw quick and easy conclusions from the British referendum that could further divide Europe,” she says.
From Merkel’s point of view, the crisis is one for European member state leaders to address. She sees the idea of “more Europe” as being the intensification of cooperation between EU governments, not the transfer of yet more authority to Brussels.
After Merkel speaks with Juncker on the phone that weekend, her belief that the Commission president is more a part of the problem than a part of the solution doesn’t change. The chancellor believes that Juncker’s appetite for power is one of the reasons why the British have turned their backs on Europe.
Merkel coordinates her approach with her powerful finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, who in the past has always presented himself as a passionate European in contrast to Merkel, the technocrat. But now, the two are in agreement. Simply calling for “more Europe” plays into the hands of Euroskeptics, Merkel says at a previously planned Friday meeting of CDU and CSU leaders in Potsdam. Those who are now demanding more integration, particularly in the euro zone, didn’t understand the message of Brexit, Schäuble believes.
No Pressure on Britain
Schäuble wants to present a plan for how the remaining 27 EU members can improve their cooperation and strengthen their cohesion. Included in his list of measures is the completion of the single market and the unhindered, cross-border movement of capital. Schäuble believes it is also necessary to establish common, EU-wide bankruptcy proceedings for companies. Member states should also reach agreement on how to achieve greater economic growth, he says, in addition to improving controls of the EU’s external borders and coming up with a joint asylum policy. If not all 27 member states are willing to pursue such measures, Schäuble says that those prepared to move ahead together should do so.
On Sunday, Merkel meets with a handful of confidants, including Chancellery Chief of Staff Peter Altmaier. The group examines a variety of different eventualities, including a second British referendum and snap UK elections. Merkel and Altmaier want to do all they can to prevent Britain from leaving, with Merkel saying that the EU should avoid exerting too much pressure. “Policymakers in London should have the possibility to reconsider the effects of leaving,” Altmaier says in an interview.
On the same day, Merkel holds a long conversation with François Hollande. The French president insists on a rapid decision from Britain — he wants to get rid of them as quickly as possible. The EU, he says, must be extremely clear about what leaving the bloc entails. Hollande also believes that Britain’s departure represents an opportunity both for himself and his country. Brexit would increase France’s influence in the EU.
In contrast to Merkel, Hollande would prefer a strategy pursuing deeper European integration. Prior to his election, he promised to reshape the EU and to give it a “friendlier, warmer face.” At the time, Merkel understood the message to be: “Allow us to take on more debt!”
On Monday, Merkel and Holland meet together in the Chancellery in Berlin along with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. Their contrasting approaches to Brexit come up and, in the end, they reach a compromise: Proposals for further EU development in the areas of security, employment, youth and euro-zone cooperation should be presented by September, it says in their joint statement. The hope is that the plan will at least get them through the next several weeks.
When Merkel delivers her government statement to German parliament on Tuesday morning just before the beginning of the EU summit, her tone regarding how the UK should be approached is a bit more severe than in the preceding days. She emphasizes that there can be no secret negotiations with the British before the country officially applies for withdrawal and that London will not be allowed to “cherry pick.” She remains true, however, to her utmost concern: that of giving Britain as much time as possible.
It has become apparent in Brussels too just how vigorously the battle is being fought between those who envision a more powerful EU and those in favor of a nation state-led Europe. The front leads through all countries and all parties. At 8:30 p.m., German members of the European People’s Party — the center-right group in European Parliament — meet. The discussion is focused on the resolution to be passed by European Parliament on Brexit and the atmosphere is heated.
Herbert Reul, head of the German group, laments that the draft resolution was produced only by a small group under the leadership of Schulz and CDU member Elmar Brok. Brok is part of the EU establishment and has for decades been a proponent of taking advantage of EU crises to deepen European integration. Meeting participants complain that now is not the time for a new convention to pave the way for deeper European unity.
There is nothing about a new convention in the paper, Brok objects. “But it does mention treaty amendments,” says CSU member Markus Ferber, and to make such changes, he adds, a convention is necessary. “You’re only telling us half of the story,” Ferber fulminates. “You’re lying to us!”
On Tuesday evening, EU heads of state and government come together for what could be their last supper together with Cameron. On the following morning, they make clear to Juncker that they will be taking the lead in the exit negotiations with Britain. “But that is the Commission’s responsibility,” Juncker protests. “Jean-Claude, we have been elected, you haven’t been,” is the rejoinder from several prime ministers and heads of state.
It’s the age-old European battle over who possesses the greatest amount of democratic legitimacy — and for the moment it doesn’t look like momentum is in favor of Juncker’s Commission and his partner Schulz’s European Parliament.
Europe’s government leaders agree on Wednesday that no changes should be made to European treaties and that there definitely should not be a convention. There also won’t be any fundamental modifications made to the EU and no deepening of integration. “It is not the time for such things,” says Merkel. It looks as though she has won this battle with the Schulz-Juncker tandem and that the concept of Europe as a collection of nation states has won this round.
The severe treatment of Britain demanded by some will also not be pursued initially. Instead, the EU will calmly wait, at least until September, to see how the situation in London develops. Europe is pausing for reflection instead of rushing to implement greater integration.
There remains, however, plenty of room for compromise. Jaroslaw Kaczynski, head of Poland’s national-conservative Law and Justice party, which currently holds power in the country, doesn’t want “less Europe” in all areas. When it comes to foreign and security policy, he would even like to see the EU play a more robust role. Kaczynski is in favor of the establishment of a European army and would like to see a strong European president with far-reaching authority. It is a demand that many governments in eastern and central Europe agree with.
By contrast, left-leaning governments, primarily in southern Europe, would like to see greater public investment. One idea to promote such investment envisions the establishment of a euro-zone budget, which would automatically grant greater powers to the Commission and the European Parliament, because such a budget would have to be managed and be subjected to parliamentary controls.
Finally, the refugee crisis has produced a third group with shared interests: Countries like Sweden and Germany took in a huge number of refugees in 2015 and are demanding the establishment of a joint asylum system, including the fair distribution of refugees throughout the EU. This too would essentially result in “more Europe.”
An Irascible Juncker
It is true that people in almost all member states have become more skeptical of the EU. But it is also true that this skepticism has a variety of vastly different causes. If every EU member were prepared to make concessions to the concerns of others, everyone could emerge better off.
In mid-September, EU heads of state and government are to meet in Bratislava to consider what the EU’s future priorities will be. Slovakia will hold the rotating EU presidency and the country’s prime minister, Robert Fico, is a proponent of an EU made up of strong nation states, much like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. He promises to be Juncker’s next difficult adversary, although it looks as though the new situation in Europe has already left its mark on the European Commission president.
Wherever he makes an appearance these days, he seems to be under stress. The jocularity and nonchalance he otherwise exudes has vanished. Juncker these days is ill-tempered and irascible.
After the summit comes to an end, a reporter from Austrian public broadcaster ORF becomes the focus of his frustration. She asks a question about CETA, the already negotiated free-trade agreement with Canada. The day before, Juncker has told European leaders that he would like to enact the treaty without the involvement of national parliaments in EU member states — thus feeding into all the stereotypes out there of an autocratic, elitist Brussels.
From a purely legal point of view, Juncker’s approach is defensible, but the timing shows a stunning degree of tone deafness. He “doesn’t really care,” he answers in response to the ORF reporter’s question about the treaty’s legal character. “Stop with this Austrian fuss. As if I would take aim at Austrian democracy.”
His friend Martin Schulz appears more philosophical about the backlash against his vision of Europe. On Wednesday afternoon, right after EU member state leaders left Brussels following the summit, he allows himself a moment to catch his breath. He is sitting in a black leather armchair in his office on the ninth floor of the enormous European Parliament building in Brussels. On a pedestal behind him are an EU flag and a statue of Willy Brandt.
In reference to Brexit, he quotes George Bernard Shaw: “Old men are dangerous: It doesn’t matter to them what is going to happen to the world.” He then addresses the Euroskepticism that he and Juncker have been confronted with in recent days. It doesn’t faze him, he says. He was first elected to European Parliament 22 years ago, Schulz continues. Now, the EU is stumbling from crisis to crisis and he is supposed to refrain from thinking about Europe’s future? Schulz finds the idea absurd. “Everyone always asks: Where are the visions for Europe? And then when you present one, you are told: Now isn’t the time. So which is it?”