The Observer's View:
Brexit and The Future of Europe
Theresa May and Jean-Claude Juncker leave the EU's headquarters in Brussels, Belgium.
The intense inwards focus in Westminster on last-minute Brexit dramas has tended to obscure the dire impact on Europe itself of Britain's decision to leave the EU. It is a poignant moment. Across a continent beset by mounting internal and external problems, Britain's departure will be interpreted by many as a stinging vote of no confidence in Europe's collective future.
With the summit in Brussels to seal the Brexit withdrawal agreements now expected to go ahead as planned, the remaining 27 member states have reached a portentous turning point that none of them ever really wanted.
The British, generally speaking, have consistently misread their importance to Europe in the postwar period. Ideologically biased and ill-informed politicians are partly to blame. Irrationally Eurosceptic rightwing newspapers have also exerted a baleful influence. On the one hand, they claimed an ungrateful Europe, symbolised by the hated “Brussels”, failed to appreciate Britain's pivotal role in saving the continent in 1945 – and keeping it safe ever since. On the other hand, crafty Europeans were said to be undermining our sovereignty, exploiting our goodwill, and, as Margaret Thatcher put it, stealing “our money”.
The more nuanced truth is very different. Most European states, most of the time, valued Britain's presence at the EU's top table. Given its strong democratic, parliamentary and public service traditions, attachment to the rule of law and commitment to free and fair trade, Britain was seen by many as a model, particularly in post-Soviet central and eastern Europe. Britain championed EU enlargement. It served as a bridge to the US. It was a key actor in Nato. And it provided crucial balance to the perpetually fragile Franco-German relationship.
Not all of this will be lost when Britain departs on 29 March next year. Nor should we repeat the old error of exaggerating British influence. But make no mistake, the damage to the idea of Europe, and to Europe's standing in the world, will be considerable and lasting. In the era of Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, the European Enlightenment's legacy of open societies based on legal rights, obligations and individual freedoms is under sustained attack. Democratic governance is not a given in much of the world. Europe is its first and last bastion. And Britain just broke ranks.
The position of Germany in post-Brexit Europe is of particular interest. Angela Merkel's government believes, rightly, that Brexit is a big mistake . Germans generally appear to feel a sense of regret, mixed with unease. Berlin must now face the challenges presented by the European-wide rise of rightwing populism, Italy's contagious anti-Brussels fiscal rebellion and the fraught problems posed by mass migration into unstable, indebted southern Europe without assistance from Britain, an instinctively like-minded ally.
The ever-cautious Merkel will meanwhile be confronted more directly by the ambitious policy demands of France's excitable president, Emmanuel Macron. In deep trouble at home after only 18 months in office, Macron is seeking salvation on a wider stage, casting himself as champion of progressive Europe. Macron advocates greater EU political, budgetary and defence integration. Many in Europe and in Berlin, where they suspect he wants Germany to foot the bill, oppose him. Britain would too, except it will have no say. In this divergence lie the seeds of a definitive fracture at the top of the EU.
Germany could ultimately be forced to make a choice: either lead or leave. Overtly taking charge in Europe is something Berlin has hitherto assiduously avoided for painful historical reasons. It would alarm many member states. It would alarm many Germans, too. And would such a scenario suit Britain's interests any more than those of France? An alternative, already mooted, is a north-south European split , in which Germany, the Netherlands, Poland and the Scandinavian and Baltic states could break away to form a sort of modern-day version of the Hanseatic League . If that point were reached, the very idea of a union of Europe would die.
Hard Tory Brexiters would doubtless welcome such an outcome. So, too, would Russia, a serial disrupter of European democracy. Brexit, which he covertly assisted, has given great comfort to Putin . Further Kremlin efforts to exploit Europe's divisions can now be expected, most predictably in the Balkans. Trump, too, will relish the disarray in Europe's camp. Without seasoned British diplomacy to help smooth paths and unruffle feathers, US-EU tensions on trade, tariffs, Nato, climate change, Iran and Israel-Palestine could, over time, morph into open confrontation.
Pro-Leave analysts argue that all such talk is fanciful and that not much will really change for ordinary people. This, perhaps, is the biggest Brexit lie of all. Try telling that to citizens, British and European, when they face new barriers, regulatory and financial, to travel and holidays. Trying telling that to young entrepreneurs, doctors, nurses, carers, agricultural workers, students and academics seeking jobs or study in the UK (and vice versa). Try telling that to all those around the world who once esteemed Britain as a welcoming, diverse, tolerant and integrated country of rights, freedoms, refuge and opportunity. The scale of Europe's loss is exceeded only by our own.
Observer editorial . Petroleumworld does not necessarily share these views.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published by The Observer on Nov 25 , 2018. All comments posted and published on Petroleumworld, do not reflect either for or against the opinion expressed in the comment as an endorsement of Petroleumworld.
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