Rather than letting “Brexit” divide the Nation, the UK should take a lead in reforming the E.U.


Having just returned from London after 4 years absence, I was reminded of the greatness and attractiveness of the British capital. However, I was struck by the contrast between the apparent aloofness of the population concerning Brexit and the spectacle of a deeply divided country sleepwalking towards an uncertain future.

This may not be as surprising as it seems: when talking to – or reading the pronouncements of – real or self-appointed experts on the subject, it became fairly obvious that discussions centred mainly around arcane legal or practical technicalities leading to dubious conclusions that were more influenced by political ideology and/or self-interest than motivated by a search for practical solutions capable of drawing the attention of ordinary citizens.

Such is the debate surrounding the possibility of a “second” referendum which neither mentions the question to be asked, nor addresses the consequences of the vote and how the outcome would heal the divide between the warring factions. Rather, it revolves around vague statements concerning “the will of the people”, the “binding” nature of the original vote and the dismal quality of the campaign which obfuscated the real issues.

A similar lack of realism pertains to arguments about the possibility of withdrawing the Art. 50 Notification letter. The overriding opinion seems to take for granted that, not only the UK has the right to withdraw the notice unilaterally, but that such a decision would automatically restore it in the status quo ante and that the EU 27 would accept it with open arms should such a request be made. This is preposterous: of course the maintenance of the UK within the EU could be “an” outcome of the Art. 50 agreement between the parties, but it would be subject to unanimous approval by the EU 27 and a majority vote of the European Parliament. To secure such a vote the UK would, no doubt, have to make concessions such as foregoing its hard fought budgetary rebate as well as most – if not all the – opt outs it has secured over time. This would be humiliating and hard to swallow, even for many genuine “remainers”!

There are equally a lack of clarity and deep divisions on the participation (or not) in the Customs Union, the Single Market or the inclusion of services (particularly financial) in a hypothetical Free Trade Agreement with the EU. These matters are further complicated by the undertakings ensuring a “seamless” border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

All these problems divide the various parties (political/ business/ academic/ media) along different fault lines according to the topic being discussed, making it impossible for the EU to know what the UK is aiming, for except having its cake, eating it; this was once again demonstrated recently by the absence of consensus within the Cabinet on the future shape of the border management between the UK and the EU.

If this state of affairs continues, there is every chance of a major political crisis bringing down the government. Negotiations with the EU will be stalled and the likelihood of falling off the cliff with no deal next March 29 would be the likely abysmal result. This is a bad outcome both for Britain and for the EU.

The current turmoil surrounding Brexit has – to a great extent – taken the spotlight off the EU’s own internal squabbles that are putting its future in jeopardy. Nevertheless, while Brussels watchers will take note with some pleasure of the rare show of unity displayed in a common “Brexit” position, they should also fear the growing tensions among the 27 as evidenced by the ever increasing attraction of populist parties, the reactions to the Commission’s 2020-27 budget proposals and the less than fulsome support, President Macron is getting from Germany for his reform agenda, not to mention the outright opposition from other quarters (Netherlands, Sweden, etc.).

The EU is facing a similar “existential” threat to its survival as the UK is with Brexit. Failing to secure a “federal authority” in the areas of defence, foreign affairs, economic and monetary policy, environment, border policing, etc. is threatening the long term sustainability of the € making a return to national currencies a real possibility; the implication is the dismantling of the EU. Such a scenario would lead to a crisis that would engulf the EU27, the UK and the rest of the world. Its scale would match – if not exceed – the crisis of the 1930’s, because of today’s far deeper integration of worldwide trade, markets and speed of communications.

Those in the UK who find solace in such a scenario are just as irresponsible and unconscious as the Europeans who believe in the “sanctity” of the Nation State and the illusion of protective national borders. This inescapable reality leads me to suggest hereunder an alternative way forward which, while seeming to many to be utopic, has maybe the merit of applying some lateral thinking to what appears as a largely intractable conundrum.

The Prime Minister should meet Chancellor Merkel and President Macron and suggest that the UK joins them in sponsoring a profound reform of the EU. Brexit would be scrapped; the authority of the PM would be restored through this “Churchillian” initiative, as would the necessary pride of the British people in co-sponsoring – and therefore co-owning – the shape of the future system. Among the 27, a clear choice would be presented pushing members to weigh the obvious advantages of an EU encompassing the UK (that many anti-federalist purport to support) and contending with the negative consequences of Brexit.

An EU-wide referendum, held simultaneously, would enshrine the new Treaty providing the Union with a “Constitution”. Each Member would have the opportunity of rejecting it and leaving the EU, giving thus a second opportunity to the British to express their preference.

Clearly, in order to provide the EU with the necessary means to advance and protect the interests of its citizens, one should consider a “federal” model, inspired by the American experience that has proved its effectiveness and resilience. The new Union should borrow heavily from its form, meaning that it must embody a clear hierarchy of norms between Federal, State and Local powers, while leaving a greater degree of freedom for content at lower levels of authority, to take into account national and local cultures and traditions.

To have any chance of prevailing, such an approach needs “leadership”. As President Macron proved, it is possible to overturn a stultified political system and propose alternatives that the population is only too anxious to embrace. Can an able and charismatic leader(s) take up the challenge and lead the European Union out of the dead end it seems to be heading for?