The Brief – Europe should listen to the Brits – they’re always right

The Brief is EURACTIV's evening newsletter. [European Commission]

For the remaining 27 members, the post-Brexit period which starts this week should open a serious discussion about the European Union’s purpose and future direction. Failure to move forward could well mean slow disintegration for the European project.

As a Frenchman, I find it painful enough to recognise this publicly. So let me say it once and for all: The Brits were right.

When the UK opted out of the single currency, many observers mocked it as a historic mistake, predicting that Britain would eventually join a project that would provide the kind of stability European nations needed for a new era of growth.

The Brits – pragmatic as they were – set out five economic tests that the UK economy had to pass before they could join the single currency. Four out of the five tests were missed and Britain opted out.

History soon proved the Brits were right. When the eurozone debt crisis broke out in 2010, the single currency’s lack of flexibility and tools to deal with market instability became visible in broad daylight (test n°2). And at the end of a painful austerity therapy, economic divergences within the single currency bloc today are worse than before the crisis started (test n°1).

David Cameron, then UK prime minister, did not miss the opportunity to lecture Europeans at the time, repeatedly urging them to deepen the eurozone’s integration and make use of “the big bazooka” to end the euro crisis.

He was right, of course. The euro was – and still is – a half-baked project, which limits the scope of national governments to make sovereign decisions on economic policy, without giving them back in return the kind of redistribution tools commensurate with the bloc’s size.

Now that Britain is effectively leaving the EU, Europeans would be well advised to listen to their motives. Because they might well be right, once more.  Europe, Brexiters complain, is evolving into a “superstate” with “sovereignty taken away from national parliaments.”

Many here in Brussels treat these claims with a sense of superiority, predicting (or hoping for?) the failure of Brexit Britain. But they have to admit Brexiters are right on one point: Europe has eroded the scope for national governments to take sovereign decisions.

And what it has given them back in return in the way of economic and social well-being is barely more than the status quo. The Banking Union is still incomplete and an embryo of a eurozone budget has only reluctantly been agreed after years of excruciating talks.

As the Brexit referendum and recent UK election have proved, the status quo is a terribly weak argument in the face of the “take back control” argument of Brexit, as flawed as it may be.

So instead of treating Brexiters with contempt, Europeans should think hard about their next move and re-examine plans for some kind of two-speed union, which all pragmatists agree is the only way forward to bring under one umbrella the diverging interests of 27 EU member states.

It’s now time to get on with it. Otherwise, the Brits will again be proven right. As Marine Le Pen and Matteo Salvini know, we are only one election away from the next major political crisis.

The Roundup

Boris Johnson nudged the UK towards a hard Brexit, insisting that the UK would not commit to maintaining EU standards on state aid and labour standards in order to strike a new trade deal with Brussels.

A British MP and his German counterpart have called for a post-Brexit “treaty of friendship” between the two countries, as concerns grow in Berlin that relations could turn increasingly hostile over the coming months.

The EU’s negotiating skills and unity will be put to a series of tests this year as the bloc seeks to thrash out a deal with the UK and minimise the impact of Brexit, conclude a trade agreement with the US, and finalise its long-term budget for 2021-2027.

The EU should “stop subsidizing undermining democracy within the EU,” Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch told EURACTIV’s Beatriz Rios.

Fifteen EU member states insisted that the EU budget for 2021-2027 should maintain the level of the previous one “in real terms”.

Amid beefed up security cooperation, Poland inked a contract for US-made F-35 fighter jets.

The centrist Renew Europe group in the European Parliament aims to “break taboos” in the agricultural sector, according to one of its Czech deputies, Martin Hlaváček.

Because of Bulgaria’s discontent, Gazprom risks a re-opening of the antitrust case the European Commission had led against the Russian gas export monopoly over suspected abuse of its dominant position in the Eastern European market.

In a resolution adopted on 30 January, MEPs called on the Commission to force tech companies to adopt a universal charger.

With the transport ministry increasing the costs to upgrade Germany’s motorways, the Greens are demanding to have access to important documents related to their construction. However, the country’s conservative transport minister is stonewalling.

Look out for…

EU Chief Prosecutor Laura Codruţa Kövesi will present the state of play of the European Public Prosecutor Office in the Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE).

ECB boss Christine Lagarde talks to Parliament’s ECON committee.

Views are the author’s

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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