Europe without Britain (2) ~ the canary in the coal mine?

Almost two years ago I wrote about Europe without Britain and I suggested that “I remain convinced that no matter what Britain does or doesn’t do, the current EU royal-wedding-cake-design-for-8-tier-wedding-cake-with-topper-559c7d68947dasuperstructure needs to be reformed. I have used the analogy of a multi-tiered cake: the smallest tier, at the top, would be those countries that would, finally, agree to surrender a good deal of real, measurable sovereignty in order to have the (undoubted benefits) of both the common currency (a reformed €) and of the Schengen Agreement. The big, bottom tier would be those countries that want only a (nearly) free trade area. There would be, presumably, room for tiers in the middle with other “gives” and “takes” for those nations that want more than just free(er) trade but less than the “United States of Europe” model proposes.” I remain, still, convinced that the EU has overreached and that the “layer cake” model is more likely to work.

It seems, according to an article by David Goodhart in The Spectator, that some continental Europeans are saying that “Anyone foolish enough to vote for Brexit in the hope that it might shake up the EU and set it on a different course has, so far, been revealed as a hopeless idealist. In neither the French nor the German national elections last year did Brexit attract much attention. ‘In France, after the initial shock, Brexit has become a non-subject… and most French people now swing between complete indifference and bewilderment,’ says Sonia Delesalle-Stolper of Libération … [but] ..Nevertheless, the regret at Brexit is genuine enough in many places. It has several layers. It is a self-interested regret for the status of the EU itself and an acknowledgement that it is a blow to the club’s prestige — and its funding — that an important net-payer country like Britain should want to leave … [and] … It is also a political regret on the part of countries such as Germany, the Netherlands and the Nordics, which shared some of our approach but were happy to allow us to take a front-of-house role in thwarting the more extreme plans for integration. As the unofficial leader of the non-eurozone countries, Britain was able to protect the interests of the mainly smaller countries not in the euro, which may now be more vulnerable … [plus] … There is, moreover, the genuine sadness of friends and admirers of Britain who really will miss us. I have found this on visits to both the Netherlands and Sweden since the Brexit vote. As one former Swedish politician put it to me: ‘We Nordics have always felt an affinity to the self-deprecating Brits, in contrast to the pompous Germans and haughty French.’

But what is, perhaps, a bit more surprising is that “But more often expressed is the less rancorous, and largely justified belief, that we Brits simply never ‘got’ the European project and it may be best for everyone concerned if we have a close relationship on the outside. Europe is a system of power and an economic mechanism but it is also a secular religion and the British have always been agnostics (we are now full-blown atheists) … [and] … For Britain the EU has been a cost-benefit calculation and, as a result of our different history and interests, we have never felt the emotional commitment to the EU that has come naturally to continental politicians and voters. As Angela Merkel said to David Cameron at a bilateral meeting in Berlin in 2012: ‘But your vision of the EU is so cold, David.’” I think I understand that … there was, throughout almost all of the 20th century, a distinction between Britain which fought against German militarism and, later, against fascism and naziism but which never, directly (yes, yes, I know about the blitz) felt the heel of the authoritarian boot on their neck.

There is one other, somewhat more surprising reaction that Mr Goodhart describes by saying that: “The final word should go to my friend Jochen Buchsteiner of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Like most reasonable Germans, he is saddened by our exit and thinks it unnecessary given the ‘semi-detached’ status we already enjoyed. ‘Brexit does matter and it will weaken Britain, it will weaken the European Union and it will weaken Germany and make it harder to resist an eventual transfer union most Germans don’t want’ … [but, Herr Buchsteiner adds] …  there is also a fear stalking the corridors of power in Germany and elsewhere. What if we flourish outside the EU? The Swedish politician I quoted told me that the editor of a top Swedish newspaper had said to her that if in five to ten years’ time Britain is doing fine, Sweden will probably leave, too. The EU will become the eurozone plus an outer ring of associated countries … [thus] … Maybe Britain is the canary in the mine, says Buchsteiner. ‘You have often been right in the past from Henry VIII to the decision to challenge Hitler. Perhaps, once again, you are seeing the future more clearly.’”

Slide1 copyAs the article suggests, some people saw the European Union as having two parts: a very cohesive “inner circle” and a less engaged “outer ring.” But, as the graphic shows that “outer ring” never stretched very far ~ Iceland and Norway were not even members of the EU and the outer ring certainly never embraced all, perhaps not even most of the newer, Eastern European members. Those who wanted the Brits to stay in and “defend” against the machinations of the inner circle didn’t really, it seems to me, understand Europe itself.
But Jochen Buchsteiner might be right … if the Brits can make a success of going it alone, outside of the EU but engaged in a free(er) trade arrangement, like Canada’s CETA, with it, will Sweden and perhaps Finland and others follow? Will the layer-cake model be the only option left for “Greater Europe?” Might the notion  of shaking up the EU and setting on a different course not be so hopeless after all?

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