Wednesday July 06, 2022

The dream of Europe is slipping from the bureaucrats’ grasp. Will they wake up before it’s too late?

June 09, 2016

It is tempting to think that the latest Pew Research Centre survey showing euroscepticism to be sharply on the rise all across Europe will send a chill wind through the corridors of the European Commission’s labyrinthine headquarters in Brussels. Tempting, but almost certainly wrong.

Unfortunately, the response of too much of the European bureaucratic elite to a continent-wide revolt against “more Europe” has too often been one of complacency and denial. As one senior EU bureaucrat candidly admitted to me recently, the current generation of mandarins is the last to grow up believing in the possibility of a greater Europe – indeed, they came halfway to realizing that dream, so perhaps it is understandable they so struggle to give it up.

But give it up they must, or at the very least beat some kind of tactical retreat. Because as Donald Tusk, the European Council president, recently observed, persisting with the “Utopian” dreams of a federalist European state against the will of the people risks destroying the entire project, very likely at terrible cost.

The will of the peoples of Europe is pretty clear. The Pew survey (which covers countries accounting 80 per cent of Europe’s population) finds that twice as many people want “less” Europe than want “more”, and favourable opinions towards Europe have fallen in five out of six countries, with double-digit drops in France (-17) and Spain (-16) and an 8-point fall in Germany.

These surveys are not outliers – a recent MORI survey for Europe Day showed the same trends – but to listen to the upper echelons of the European Commission it is frustratingly clear how little they understand the depth of the anger out there, and the urgency of the task that confronts them, even if they pay lip-service to its magnitude.

The story of David Cameron’s renegotiation with Europe was symptomatic of the Commission’s sluggishness in embracing the kind of multi-form, multi-directional Europe that only reflects these new political ground-realities.

The UK tried to enlist Italy to help argue for a “new settlement” that acknowledged the reality of Europe as a “multi-currency union” (where the aspirant Euro members wouldn’t be joining any time soon, which they won’t) but that move was ultimately quashed in Berlin. Instead the Commission, with Germany, Belgium and France, circled the wagons around the failed federalist dream, only grudgingly conceding all member states must not seek a “common destination” while privately asserting that in practice the majority will.

The result is an impression of only ever-deeper denial. Take the attitude of Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission president, to the possibility that Norbert Hofer of Austria’s far-Right Freedom Party might win last month’s presidential election. 

“There will be no debate or dialogue with the far-right,” he proclaimed, to the fury of many Austrians, apparently happy to ignore the fact the nearly half of them (49.4 per cent in the end) were preparing to vote for Mr Hofer.

The Freedom Party (FPO) may be ideologically on the far Right, but the vast majority of Austrians who voted for it are not – they are simply fed up with their political elites’ inability to create jobs and manage migration.

In 2000, when the late, SS-admiring Joerg Haider’s Freedom Party entered government, some 150,000 Austrians marched through Vienna to protest. But last month an anti-FPO protest managed to attract less than 500 people.

At the risk of stating the obvious, it is no longer 2000. The political paradigm is shifting and Juncker and his Commission colleagues need to adjust their earpieces and tune in and really listen to the new realities before it is too late.

The June 23 referendum will be a big test of Brussels’s willingness and ability to adapt – whichever way Britain votes.

The noises coming from the Commission are not encouraging – we must hope, by design. In private, senior officials aggressively sketch out two opposing, binary worlds that await Britain, depending on whether we choose “in” or “out”.

If Britain votes “remain” we will be showered with the benefits of Cameron’s negotiation – a migration brake, benefits curbs and a deepening of the principle of subsidiarity – and go on to participate fully in a Europe where there is “no obligation on everyone to participate in everything”.

If Britain votes to go however, we are instantly condemned to be outcasts in a frigid world where Brussels hands London a quickie divorce and, like a hedgehog rolling itself into a ball, Europe’s core coalesces against Britain and our interests.

In this scenario, some officials warn, only after years of prickly and painful estrangement – a decade or more, perhaps – can Britain expect that a new modus vivendi will emerge.

Sceptics will ask why, if Brussels is serious about allowing a multi-form Europe, that Europe should be contingent on Britain first voting to remain. Shouldn’t that it be that way anyway, with or without the UK deal? For that reason alone, many Britons may choose to vote “leave”.

But if you don’t believe either Britain or Europe’s interests would be advanced by Brexit – given the value-destruction that might well ensure – you will rightly curse the hubris that led to Europe’s premature undoing, or the nemesis, if it comes, will hurt us all.