By Ariane Forgues
‘If Europe has not moved towards a federation of states yet, that is simply because the Brits didn’t want to.’ Oh, how spread that idea is amongst continental federalists! Oh, how easy things would be if such was today’s situation! Actually, why is Europe still waiting to become a federation now that the British people has chosen to leave the European Union?
The fact is, the world rarely develops into such a dichotomous situation. Let’s assume for the sake of the debate that the United Kingdom is de facto about to exit the EU – which it is not for the time being, as the referendum was only consultative, and Number 10 is trying its best to get a delay before actually using Article 50 of the Treaty to depart from Brussels.
Let’s assume Britain indeed is currently undergoing the exit process.
Is it helping the chances of federalising the Union? In some regards, it definitely is. Only a member since 1973, after a failed attempt at creating an alternative institutional regime with a bunch of other countries, the United Kingdom has almost never helped European integration deepening. In fact, it has on several occasions done the contrary – asking for its ‘money back’ and forcing some agreements to be adopted outside the EU framework to get special treatment, what is known in the EU vocabulary as ‘opting-outs’. What is absolutely certain is that Britain, with the exception of defence cooperation enhancement in the late 1990s, has never been a pillar of further integration. Did Brexit remove an obstacle to the achievement of a federal Europe? It undoubtedly has.
Yet, the road to this federal Europe is (very) far from built. Even without the United Kingdom. In fact, new challenges await EU leaders, challenges whose tackling was precisely avoided thanks to the presence of London inside the Union. For the past decade or so, Britain’s infamous (and empirical) reluctance to further integration has counted amongst the main arguments in the EU public debate for explaining the weakening of the integration engine. Now that the Brits are leaving, time has come for the leaders of the 27 other Member States to face the question themselves: What Europe do we intend to build? The British excuse does not stand anymore.
Euroscepticism across the continent has rapidly spread. In Central and Eastern Europe, some of the newest Member States are now contemplating an increase in conservative, nationalist positions. In Western Europe, several of the Union’s founding countries have started expressing their scepticism towards the EU’s current functioning – yet without introducing constructive solutions in the public debate. In most Member States, governments try to please their citizenry by taking the credit for efficient EU actions and criticising EU institutions for unpopular decisions… that national governments actually supported in Brussels a few weeks before!
Brexit is not only creating the ‘what-are-we-gonna-do-that’s-an-unprecedented-situation’ challenge in the European Union decision-making circles. Another stake is now glooming – we’ll call it the ‘does-this-mean-I-now-have-to-be-clear-myself-on-the-EU’s-future?!’ challenge.
And truth be told, the founding fathers of the European Union did have a vision of what Europe would be. Today’s leaders, however, hardly ever agree on the degree to which the Union should be more unified: shall we create a federal Eurozone? A federal EU-27? An intergovernemental Union only supranationalised when it comes to secret services – or the Galileo GPS project?
As long as the hardest Eurosceptic member, Britain, was in the club, this debate probably was considered unnecessary due to the British veto to any project that did include further loss of sovereignty. Now that London is getting out of the club, EU leaders are being warned: the peoples of Europe’s rising Euroscepticism is no imaginary fantasy but needs to be addressed – the time has come to explicitly advocate for Europeanisation and to explain to their citizens why Europe matters. If they want more Europe, they should proactively raise their public opinion’s awareness on the benefits of the Union.
It is no longer time to choose the easy way of short-termism; Europe’s very future is now at stake.