There is a strong sense of a new beginning for the European Union, one that has nothing to do with Brexit but much to do with Emmanuel Macron and with an economic upswing. As the former Le Monde editor Natalie Nougayrede wrote in The Guardian, the change of mood in Europe is bringing talk of “new roadmaps” between President Macron and Chancellor Angela Merkel, of a chance not just to revive Franco-German cooperation but also to rebuild the European Union.
Some of this talk may be Schadenfreude, pleasure at the misfortunes of others, especially now that France’s youthful new president is sitting on exactly the sort of parliamentary dominance that Britain’s Conservatives were expecting barely two months ago. Some, certainly, is premature, with unemployment still high, the anti-euro Five Star Movement still leading Italian opinion polls, and with migrants still arriving, and dying, in large if diminished numbers from across the Mediterranean.
Certainly, whatever problems Macron may encounter in achieving the reforms he promises, the contrast between the British and continental moods is a far cry from eurosceptic talk of how Britain’s EU membership meant it was shackled to a corpse, as Douglas Carswell so eloquently put it, echoing a First World War phrase about Germany’s alliance with the fading Austro-Hungarian empire. The scholarly Daniel Hannan MEP made the same claim in his also war-referencing video, Ici Londres.
So, while most of the British focus is on what difference our election result and consequent governmental fragility may make to the Brexit negotiations, it is worth asking the corresponding question about the other side of the Channel: what difference might an awakening “corpse” make?
There are likely to be three parts to this, beyond the simple question of how far the EU really does reawaken: an effect on the interests of the other 27 member states in the Brexit talks; an effect on the domestic politics of some of those member states; and an effect on British public opinion.
Let’s take those in turn. The effect on the interests of the other 27 member states is likely to be minimal or non-existent, just as the effect of Britain’s governmental fragility on our interests is also likely to be minimal. Absent any serious further threats of withdrawal or substantial fragmentation – which Marine Le Pen’s resounding defeat has removed, for now, though Italy’s Five Star could in theory pose such an issue, if they were to get close to power – the interest of the 27 in minimising the disruption of Brexit, in protecting the existing treaties and in maintaining a friendly relationship with Britain will remain the same.
Interests typically do not change with swings of mood or fortune, especially in such a deep, strategic relationship as this. But domestic politics can be affected by mood swings, and probably will be, to some extent. However a strong Macron, like a strong Merkel if that is what Germany has after that country’s elections in September, will feel little need to pander to nationalistic domestic opinion by being “tough” on Britain. His political success, combined with a warmer economic climate, can be expected to allow him to follow French and EU interests closely, rather than playing political games.
The real variable lies in the third part: British public opinion. Comparing the 1975 referendum with 2016, a key difference was plainly the sense a year ago that the EU was a dysfunctional, divided, perhaps even failing entity, whereas four decades earlier it had looked like a success story. During the 18 months of divorce negotiations, and even more so during the likely longer negotiations during a transitional period, that sense could change.
If the talk of new roadmaps proves to be genuine, we can expect major initiatives in at least three main areas: defence, infrastructure and the euro. Of those, progress or otherwise on the euro is unlikely to concern Britain. That would not, however, be true of the other two.
If Macron and Merkel were to agree upon an ambitious programme of public investment, for example, outside the EU’s fiscal pact and focused most likely on infrastructure and an electricity supergrid, this could produce some jealous glances from Britain. This would not necessarily change minds about membership as such, but it could alter thinking and interests about the terms of our future relationship.
The same is true of defence. Longstanding British objections to any threat of sidelining NATO has held back EU defence cooperation, so Brexit will make that easier. But Britain will still be affected, and perhaps tempted, both by moves to co-ordinate defence procurement (for which cost and US-dependency is as big a problem for Britain as it is for France), and by further development of joint operations, as are already being conducted (with British participation) in the Mediterranean. Again, EU progress could alter British thinking about what sort of future relationship could be in our interest.
The European awakening could bring surprises and progress in all sorts of fields, including trade relations with Asian, African and Latin American countries. If the “corpse” really starts to become an athlete again, the country that chose to be a spectator, Britain, cannot fail to be affected.
Edited by Luke Lythgoe
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