Three lessons for Europe from the tragedy of Brexit

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

The sight of Boris Johnson's government 'going rogue' is a reminder that EU institutions offer citizens a place to go when domestic governments deny their rights, argues Roger Casale. [DOSSMANN/EP]

The sight of Boris Johnson’s government ‘going rogue’ is a reminder that EU institutions offer citizens a place to go when domestic governments deny their rights, argues Roger Casale.
Roger Casale is the founder and secretary general of New Europeans

The British have fallen deeper into the elephant trap of Brexit. Meanwhile in continental Europe, patience is starting to wear thin.

There is sympathy for the 5 million EU citizens in the UK and Britons in the EU whose lives have been left in limbo. But why should we Europeans care about Briton’s obsession with itself? Why not just leave Brexit to the Brits?

For the British themselves, Brexit has little to do with Europe and everything to do with who has power in Britain and what they intend to do with it.

Boris Johnson brings those issues sharply into focus. He is the apotheosis of a Tory party civil war that has rumbled on for over 30 years. It is now doing untold damage to the British interests and its reputation around the world.

Like a scavenger on the battlefield, Johnson’s interest is the spoils of war. He has scant regard for the casus belli, or the number of casualties. He is at least clear about whose side he’s on. Boris is on the side of Boris.

Johnson is turning his back not only on 45 years of EU membership but also on the core values on which EU membership depends. He is shutting down democracy and appears ready to disregard the rule of law – as it suits him.

All this stands in stark contrast with mainstream conservative values and Conservative party policy towards Europe over decades.

It was Winston Churchill who first called for a “United States of Europe” – although it was not clear he meant the UK to be a member.

He is rightly credited though as one of the founding fathers of what I call Europe 1 – the Europe of nations and states, that gave us the foundation of lasting peace between the  member states of the EU.

Even Margaret Thatcher had her moments. She pushed strongly for what I refer to as Europe 2 – the Europe of markets and money. She was a powerful advocate of the single market and the changes needed to make it a reality.

Those reforms included the introduction of qualified majority voting, so that the non-tariff barriers that will return the moment the UK leaves the EU without a deal could be torn down. Of course, she hated the idea of the Euro.

It is the heirs to Churchill and Thatcher, people like Nicholas Soames, Churchill’s grandson, and Ken Clarke, or Philip Hammond and David Gauke, who were unceremoniously thrown out of the Tory party earlier this month.

Such iron discipline was not meted out not by a Prime Minister who has always played by the party rules.  Boris Johnson is himself a serial rebel. Many of his cabinet members voted time and again against Theresa May’s government.

Britain now has a Prime Minister who has been described by Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry MP as a “manifest liar”.

His own brother Jo Johnson MP has resigned from the government and is leaving politics because of “a conflict between family loyalty and the national interest.”  This is not “politics as we know it”.

In the face of these provocations, what should the attitude and behaviour of the EU be? What, if anything does the Brexit crisis teach us as Europeans?

Firstly, the EU is right, in my view, to recognise that Brexit is a challenge to the unity of the EU and the integrity of the single market.

Or to put it another way, the EU is a community of values as well as interests and relationships between members are not simply transactional.

There can be no truck with any attempt by the Johnson government to bend the rules of the single market or alter the border arrangements in Ireland.

The British have always taken a transactional approach to Europe.  Johnson is the worst case example and he will never understand why there can be no movement from the EU on these key issues.  That’s his problem not the EU’s.

Secondly, the UK’s recent behaviour has escalated the challenges to a new level. In fact, it puts a question mark over the negotiation itself.

If Britain wants a hard Brexit so be it. But when the UK government puts itself above the law, its behaviour becomes a matter of international concern.

The EU is right to stall negotiations. Michel Barnier has spoken of a “paralysis”. Donald Tusk should now set down conditions for the resumption of talks.

While the UK is still a member of the EU it should be made to obey the rules.

So these conditions should include UK confirmation that it will respect parliamentary sovereignty and the rule of law.

Earlier this year when Theresa May asked for an extension to 30 June, it was granted on the condition that the UK held European elections.

As Donald Tusk said at the time, this is necessary “because we are Europeans.”

Well, Europeans are no less European today. The same message needs to be repeated – in Boris Johnson’s case, over and over again.

The third and final lesson for the EU, is to recall that in every crisis there is an opportunity.

If one of the driving forces behind the Brexit vote was a concern about democracy then now is the moment to turn that argument on its head.

The EU is not a threat to democracy. It is the guarantor of democracy in Europe.  That is because the EU is not just a union of states (Europe 1) and of markets (Europe 2), but also a Europe of citizens (Europe 3).

As citizens of Europe, we live in the world’s first transnational representative democracy, governed by the rule of law and anchored in a respect for human dignity. We have rights, we have a voice and we have a vote.

The question to be asked of those driving Brexit is not why they want Britain to leave the EU, but rather what they plan to do once the UK has left? That is the killer question but it is the one that never gets put.

The EU institutions offer citizens a place to go when domestic governments go rogue. That is one of the best arguments for EU membership there is.

If Brexit allows us to see that more clearly, then some good will have come from what has so far been a hugely disruptive and increasingly toxic chapter in Europe’s post-war history.

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