Despite all the problems and setbacks European integration has suffered in the past, the ‘ever closer Union’ always felt quite certain to me. However, even before British voters went to the ballot boxes in June last year, the calls for a break-up of the currency union and the re-introduction of border controls due to the 2015 refugee crisis in several Schengen countries made the path of deeper integration seem less certain.
The results of the June 23 referendum nevertheless came as a shock. In Germany, much like in Britain and the rest of Europe, people wondered what this would mean – for the future of Britain, but also for the future of the remaining 27 member states. Following the initial shock, wild speculations began to mushroom: on whether Frankfurt, Germany’s financial capital, would benefit from banks relocating from London; on the extent to which Brexit would hurt German companies’ UK business; on the possibility for deeper European integration without one of the most eurosceptic member states; and on possible knock-on effects in countries like the Netherlands and France.
However, from the overall German perspective, the decision to leave the European Union would mainly hurt the UK itself. On the one hand, the entire internal question of devolution and Scottish independence was on the table again, because the voting behaviour in the constituting countries varied so remarkably. On the other hand, the UK began sailing into an uncertain future in terms of market access; participation in EU research and exchange programmes; EU citizen rights for its expat population across the EU and so on.
After everyone had rushed to comment on Brexit and speculate on the future, the focus shifted and had I not been here in Brussels – where the topic was always on everybody’s mind – it would have almost felt as though June 23 never happened.
This will change, however, when the British government submits its request to leave the European Union this week. The Brexit nightmare will materialise irrevocably and wild speculations and tough talk will clash with reality and begin to transform into concrete negotiating positions.
The run up to the national elections in Germany shows that following the British path away from the EU does not seem an option for most voters. While the openly pro-European social democrat Martin Schulz (SPD) is scoring high approval rates, Angela Merkel’s Christian democrats (CDU) can also be described as a pro-European party. Not even the nationalist far-right “alternative for Germany” (AfD) advocates a German exit from the EU.
Unfortunately, parts of the CDU that have always argued for a multi-speed Europe feel their moment has come. In the context of Brexit, this debate seems to regain momentum. Even the Rome declaration of last Saturday is hinting at this by stating that the member states will ‘act together, at different paces and intensity where necessary’.
Despite having general reservations about the idea of having an EU with numerous different levels of integration, I do not believe it is wise to open this can of worms at the very moment, when the 27 remaining member states need to stand united to negotiate their future relationship with the UK.
There is no doubt that European integration cannot continue with decisions taken on a knife’s edge and against public support. There is also no question that the remaining 27 member states will have to fill the void the UK is leaving – be it for the seat allocation of the European Parliament or to make up for the UK’s financial contribution to the EU budget. Moreover – and more importantly – the 27 member states will have to see how they want to move on as a Union.
However, I sincerely doubt that it is wise to raise these questions before the Brexit negotiations are finalised as it could leave the EU with even greater divisions and make member states focus on their individual preferences rather than on the common good of the EU.
If Brexit is teaching us one thing, it is that Europe is far too integrated already for any one country to perform the clean break that Nigel Farage and his camp have promised their voters. At the European Parliament, I am working on fisheries policy and in this relatively small sector alone we see the many inter-dependencies between EU member states. How will stocks be managed sustainably without scientific cooperation? How will parts of the French, Dutch and Danish fleets survive, if they no longer have access to British waters? How will the British fishery and processing industry survive, if they do not have preferential access to the common market?
The coming months and years of negotiations will have to bring answers to these and countless other questions.
Image: Peter Linke