LONDON: The future of the European Union (EU) hangs by a thread. Events this year will determine whether this thread is made of steel, capable of withstanding the weight of its bureaucracy and countless problems, or of breakable cotton leading to catastrophic failure with world-wide consequences.

As it stands today, the EU is a far cry from the organisation set up after the Second World War. From an organisation of six countries set up in 1952 in the hope that it would prevent further European conflict, it has grown into a European Union of 28 countries, 19 of which have a common currency, the euro. The EU is deemed a successful and major player in the world, with a GDP of $16.5 trillion and 7.5% of the world population. 

So, I hear you say, where’s the problem?

Listen carefully through the cacophony of the recent Brexit referendum and you’ll hear one word time and time again: sovereignty. Sovereignty is government free from external control, which countries sacrifice when they join the EU. “But we all benefit from shared sovereignty”, say pro-EU voters. “No, we don’t”, say Brexiteers, “you can’t share sovereignty, you either have it or you don’t. It’s rather like a woman and pregnancy, she is either pregnant or not. You cannot share pregnancy.” And so the debate goes on. 

When a country joins the EU it signs up to the four pillars of the single market: free circulation of goods, capital, services and people. No ifs, no buts. Few argue with the first three, but it is the freedom of movement of people which is the main issue of those wishing to leave or change the EU. 

If you don’t have the sovereignty to control your borders, you cannot limit other European citizens from living, working and retiring in your country. Migration was the loudest clarion during the Brexit debate, resulting in majorities of more than 70% in some areas voting to leave the EU. 

Voters had seen unprecedented pressure on housing, schools and health services, which they perceived were caused by mass migration. This is high on the agenda during the forthcoming Brexit negotiations, with the EU currently telling the British government that they cannot “cherry-pick” the four pillars; take it or leave it.

There is no doubt that Britain’s decision to leave the EU came as a major shock to European politicians and terrified the 35,000 bureaucrats in the powerful and unelected European Commission. There is no precedence for countries leaving the EU. Not only will the £8.5bn paid by Britain create a large hole in the EU budget, but the departure of its second largest economy, in terms of its nominal GDP, will require a major re-balancing among the remaining members. Will other countries follow Britain’s lead in leaving the EU? This is the nightmare question overhanging the organisation. 

There are four general elections in European countries in 2017: The Netherlands, France, Germany and possibly Italy. In each there is a sizeable and growing party with hostile views on migration in the EU. The first indication will come from the Dutch general election on 1 March, where the mercurial right wing populist, Geert Wilders, fervently anti-migration, is currently projected to lead the biggest party. Because of large number of parties seeking election, the projected 35 seats for Wilders is insufficient for the 76 needed to form a government and he will need to find partners with his persuasion; unlikely, say the pundits. 

A month later will see the first round of the French presidential elections, where the right wing National Front candidate, Marine Le Pen is currently neck and neck with her centre-right opponent, Francois Fillon. Openly hostile to the EU, Le Pen is considered to be certain of a place in the final ballot on 7 May, but is likely to find the forces of the centre and left gang up against her to prevent her from becoming President. 

The German federal elections are not currently scheduled, but will probably be held in October. The coalition of the incumbent Chancellor, Angela Merkel, is forecast to win again, but her popularity wavers with the level of terrorist threats, perceived to come from a tiny fraction of the 1 million immigrants she has welcomed to Germany, a “catastrophic mistake” according to President Donald Trump. The cause for concern among the ruling class, however, is the sudden popularity of the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany Party, led by Frauke Petry, now polling more than 15%, approaching the Social Democrats, who are on 20%. 

There is also growing uncertainty in Italian politics, following the heavy defeat in the December referendum of Prime Minister Renzi and the rise of anti-EU sentiment. Some forecast that there will be an early Italian election this year. The opposition Five Star Party is ambiguous on migration, but with the pressure of immigration from the Middle East and North Africa, this could quickly change. 

Add to all this the continuing tragedy of Greece suffering under the cosh of the Euro, not to mention Brexit and you have a potentially turbulent 2017 in Europe. “The future of Europe looks bleak”, said the billionaire investor George Soros at Davos this week, “people are alienated and anti-European parties are gathering force”. 

Despite all these pressures, however, Europhiles believe it unlikely that the anti-EU opposition over Europe will succeed in changing the status quo and that Europe will muddle through in its present form without Britain. But then how many went to bed on Tuesday 8 November 2016 certain that Hillary Clinton was going to win the Presidential election? Will the thread break?

John Dobson worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s Office between 1995 and 1998 and is presently a consultant in the private sector.

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