The British have voted against their own interest, Herman Van Rompuy told EURACTIV.com in an exclusive interview, contending that the UK’s isolationist mentality cut off its emotional link to Europe. The EU can go further without Britain on security, defence and foreign policy, he said.
Herman Van Rompuy is a Belgian politician, who served as the prime minister of Belgium from 2008 to 2009, and then as the first president of the European Council, between 2009 and 2014.
He spoke to EURACTIV.com’s Editor-in-Chief, Daniela Vincenti.
You might be surprised by my first question, which you might find a bit provocative. But since the Brexit vote I can’t stop thinking of Karl Marx, who wrote that history has a habit of repeating itself, first as tragedy then as farce. Are we witnessing a farce?
You say that history repeats itself. I always add that it repeats itself, but not in the same way. Each time it’s something new.
This exit is a novelty, not a repetition because it’s the first time it happened. It’s too serious to call it a farce. So it has to be tragedy. But it is first of all a tragedy for the UK, as well as being a major setback for the EU.
Brexit is hurting economically and politically the UK more. People voted against their own interests. It is a strange situation, since the UK, “fatherland of common sense” is making a critical mistake. And mistake here is a soft word.
Some Visegrad countries blame Juncker and the Commission for pushing the UK towards Brexit. Is that fair? Who is to blame?
Cameron apparently did the same in the European Council. It infuriated a number of leaders and is the reason why the meeting of the 27 the day after came to a harsher resolution than what was previously envisaged.
I think that labelling the Commission as responsible at this stage verges on farce. There was an agreement between the EU and the UK. That agreement was backed also by the Visegrad countries, also on the most difficult point for them: free movement of people, something that played a huge part in the referendum debate.
When history is written one day, the position of the UK Conservative government will come under scrutiny, as well as the role of the ‘populist’ press.
The European institutions are not the ones that campaigned or interfered. It was a British problem, so if you are looking for those who were responsible, you have to look internally. The voters have spoken, they aren’t always right, but they have spoken; that has to be respected.
There are still calls for a second referendum…
I’m not British, but I can’t imagine that after such a long campaign, after everything was put on the table, lies and truths included, that the process will be repeated. That will be a farce.
Even though it happened in Denmark and Ireland, I can’t imagine that this will not be respected given the British tradition. A lot is going to happen before the day they leave. Every day will be a surprise. But there’s no other option than to implement the result of the referendum.
At the EPP40, you said that there should be no nostalgia. Do you think Britain is still trapped in nostalgia for its imperial past?
The result of a referendum has to be analysed carefully. There are a lot of factors at play. My first question was: Was it all about Europe? There has been a decade-long agreement about the UK’s involvement in the European Union, given its opt-out from asylum, Schengen, the eurozone etc.
This long history of Euroscepticism has been translated into political positions.
But was it all about Europe? My British friends said that austerity, rising inequality and anger at government policy played an important role.
A referendum is a chance for a voter’s opinion to be heard. One of my political fathers said that in a referendum, people answer questions that were never asked. This could explain the difference of 4% between the two camps, between 52 and 48%.
What is driving this anti-European feeling? British history has been markedly different to the rest of Western Europe. The EU is a peace project, but for the British it was more an economic project.
There was never an emotional link with the EU. This was the case in the 1950s, 60s and 70s in other parts of Western Europe. In the UK, you have always had that transactional view on Europe, rather than an emotional link.
Then you have geography. The UK is an island. Add to that religion and its effect on their mentality. 500 years ago, they founded their own church, breaking with Rome. The Commonwealth too has reinforced this stand-alone mentality.
A part of the Leave campaign cited the referendum as a battle to be won like in the 1940s. Britain won the war but not alone. It did with the United States and others. This idea of a glorious past played a part on the referendum, to what extent I don’t know. But it might have made a difference.
Brexit will not change Western civilisation
Your successor, Donald Tusk, warned that Brexit could spell the end of Western civilisation. Is it really?
I’m not a historian, just an economist and to some extent a philosopher. We have to be prudent when projecting the current scenario into the future though. It’s a difficult moment. It’s, of course, an important one in the EU’s history. However, it has little to do with civilisation. It has more to do with history of an important dream which brought peace to Western Europe.
In the short-term, we’ll see how things will evolve. There is only one constant element in this matter, the surprise. A paradox, I know, but true. We’ll see in the coming weeks, months and years how this will evolve.
I was struck by what he said. Do you think he meant democracy rather than civilisation?
I don’t know. If you ask me what changed civilisation over the last 50 years, I see two main elements. First, May ’68. The French Prime Minister at the time said it was a crisis of civilisation, not the end. It changed civilisation.
May 68 changed all the relations with authority in society. It was the beginning of the liberalisation of the individual, not philosophically, but in its personal life. The individual stopped accepting the authority of the church, of the school, political authority and tried to make its own mind. I am deeply convinced that this was a change in our post-war civilisation.
The second change in civilisation was the collapse of communism, because over 70 years that ideology was considered to be the one that was going to conquer the world. Then it collapsed without one shot. That changed civilisation. Brexit won’t.
Jean Monnet famously wrote that Europe would be forged in crisis. Brexit will likely lead to a constitutional crisis of unprecedented proportions. How is this going to unfold?
When you say constitutional crisis, it is the UK that is going to suffer with it more than the EU. The damage is more there than on the continent. Here, we have to very careful.
Each situation is different. Each situation has to be judged on its own merit. Don’t believe for a second that the remaining 27 are imploding. Shared values, interests and ideas will keep it afloat.
Imagine a referendum in an important country of the eurozone, it would threaten the latter and the EU itself. It is a completely different situation to a non-eurozone state. What’s happening to the UK on the financial markets is a clear signal to other countries.
Most of the non-eurozone countries, especially those in Central and Eastern Europe they have a strong interest in staying in because of security reasons. That’s why they wanted to join so soon after independence, given the Russian threat and the protection offered by the EU. Most of those countries receive about 4-5% of their GDP in structural funds as well.
In terms of values, often underestimated, the strong will of leaders and public opinion to remain in the EU, plays a part. People have doubts and scepticism about the way policy is conducted. But scepticism in the existence or raison d’etre of the EU is really a minority.
We need two kinds of Europe: Europe of results and the Europe of the necessary
You are talking about doubts about the functioning of the Union. Do we need to reopen the Treaty? Do we need another convention then?
I was never in favour of that or making major changes to the treaties. Reflection is always possible, of course. Treaty changes can’t be excluded in the long-term, that’s just common sense.
Starting now a process for a convention is not a good idea. Calls for a convention can come from federalists, but it can also lead to less Europe, in the current climate.
I think we need two kinds of Europe: Europe of results and the Europe of the necessary—which have nothing to do with the reorientation of the Union but with a renewed dynamism.
The Europe of results has to provide many more visible outcomes in terms of employment, for example. It’s not just a task for the Union, a lot can be done at a national level-we need micro-reforms of the labour market.
We have to work on uncontrolled immigration. Like many, I am not a fan of the EU-Turkey agreement, but at least it works. Even though I feel a lot of compassion for those refugees, but our societies don’t accept it any more. It could fuel populism, extremism, instability, not just in small countries, but in larger ones too. Immigration is still a big issue, because people think that it can happen again. More has to be done.
Terrorism is another issue. There is a broad range of concerns that affect daily life that can be mitigated by results. This can be done without a convention and treaty change. The Europe of necessary is about the Energy Union, Digital Market, roaming tariffs, deepening the monetary union, making progress in the Banking Union etc.
All without treaty change?
Yes, it’s a matter of drawing conclusions from what we already have. For the economic and monetary union, it is just about drawing conclusions from having a common currency. It’s as simple as that.
We have the four presidents’ report. It isn’t meant to be implemented in the short-term. Interesting things have been done and the eurozone is more stable. But, If another financial crisis happened, we need more instruments to enhance the stability of the eurozone.
Some are advocating to move towards a two-speed Europe. Last week, for example, Slovakia called for returning EU power to the capitals. Clearly there is tension. How do we overcome it?
It is not forbidden to reflect on the far future. But not open the Pandora’s Box. Opening a debate that could have unforeseen results. You don’t need a Convention to make big leaps forward.
As far as Slovakia is concerned, the rotating presidency plays a much less important role now since the introduction of a permanent president of the European Council. They have no programme as they once did, for example.
They implement the decisions made by the European Council. In the UK, and the Netherlands, they did a survey on what kind of competences could be repatriated from Brussels.
They concluded that almost nothing could be returned. All of these competencies are so entwined and it is very difficult to disentangle them from each other. What the Slovaks are suggesting is nothing new. But anyone thinking that it might happen is set to be disappointed.
I don’t see the need for a two-speed Europe once the UK has left.
What about a two-speed Europe?
What does that mean? Along eurozone lines? Nineteen out of the 27? What kind of two speed is that!
I think that the idea of a two-speed union was invented by those whose analysis concluded that the Brits prevent us from making progress.
During my five years, I was never hindered by Britain in stabilising the eurozone. The thought that Britain was preventing progress, is completely untrue. It was in the interest of the UK to have a stable Eurozone, but they were constructive, when it came to the Banking Union. I don’t see the need for a two-speed Europe once the UK has left.
The EU can go further without Britain
In one area, we can go further without Britain: in terms of security, defence and foreign policy. In December 2013, I organised a summit on defence. The British press reported it as Barroso in charge of the EU army. A disgrace. I was careful in this area, because I knew how much room for manoeuvre the UK had. Now it is leaving, I think we can do a lot more on defence and security, as well as military cooperation. Gradually and prudently. There are fewer constraints post-Brexit.
We were very active in Ukraine, less through the institutions, more through the member states. But we had a shared position on the sanctions. We were absent to a certain extent in the Middle East. We are more interested in what is happening in, for example, Syria, than the US and Russia, even if it is just because of the refugee crisis. We need stronger engagement by the European Council. It has to play a major role in foreign policy and defence. The European Council takes the lead on other issues. Without this leadership on defence and security, as well as foreign policy, it won’t happen. I mean this collectively, not just Donald Tusk.
When you say military cooperation, does this include an EU army?
No. We can do a lot in terms of cooperation, but there are a lot of sensitivities, even after Brexit. We can do much more in putting capabilities together, working on what we already have (battle groups), cyber-security etc.
The Libyan war taught us a lot. It was started before the involvement of NATO, with the thought of winning it without their help. But after two weeks we needed it. We need to put existing capacities together, which will create new capacities.
Back to Brexit. You talked about May ’68. Young people voted overwhelmingly to stay in the EU. Does Britain need a May ’68 to create the 21st century Britain?
I’m reluctant to say anything on the UK, not being British. If I were a young person in the UK, I would be very angry.
The world of tomorrow, of 2030, is not far away. Take a deep breath and you are there. In that world, the Brexiteers won’t be there. I can imagine the anger, because if you are aware that a vote is a vote and a result is a result, you end up living in a world you don’t want. Because you want an open world. I know that the EU isn’t the only way of being open, but apparently for them, it is.
In such an existential debate, everything is put on the table. The youngsters decided that openness to the rest of Europe was the way forward. A new world has been created for them without their consent.
How can the EU remain open to them?
We have to go through these difficult negotiations first. We have to live in the real world. That will be a lot more confrontational than a lot of people think. In a negotiation, you defend your own interests. That’s the nature of it. It’s not going to be easy.
There is political will to find an understanding, I think, but in respect to principles and respect of our interests. But the new situation will be created after this. I hope that there will be strong support in the UK to reach out scientifically and intellectually to the EU, because nothing should be excluded from the future.
We are divorcing after 40 years. We have to find new ways to continue to share. We share so much already, not just history, values and ideas. This is if separation does indeed happen.We have no clue what will happen in the short-term and you never know what history will bring.
On the young people, that gives me a lot of hope. Europe is built on the peace project and it played a big, big role. The older generation is normally more in favour of Europe, because they either lived through the war or they heard stories of it. That is my personal experience too. For me, the war was a lively spirit in my heart. What’s happening now, is that the older generation is now voting against this peace project. Those with no recollection voted in favour.
I see hope in this tragic story, because young people are looking to the future not the past. I saw a rock festival on TV yesterday. The young people at the festival were asked if they were going to go watch Paul McCartney play. Most said they didn’t know who he was!
So the young people are in favour of this openness and are proving themselves to be less influenced by fear, unlike their older counterparts.