Just two weeks ago, MEPs attended the first European Parliament (EP) plenary session of 2016. Two weeks later and with a few exceptions, the main focus of discussions was unchanged: Brexit and the refugee crisis. The plenary began much like all the others. The bell rang at 16:55 on Monday to announce the first item of the agenda and the mood in the house was calm and relaxed, as befits the day. But the storm was already brewing…
Ahead of Wednesday’s debate on the upcoming European Council Summit of 18-19 February, Donald Tusk’s letter on a new settlement for the UK, released on Tuesday, sparked frenzy in the EP corridors. The entire EU apparatus (MEPs, assistants, advisors, Commission officials etc.) and the media were abruptly awoken from their Monday blues as they scrambled to analyse, interpret and communicate the political impact of the letter and break the story. At last the scene was set for the first proper EP debate on the Brexit issue. It won’t be the last.
“Ever closer union” – a different meaning?
Dutch Foreign Minister and Council representative Bert Koenders kicked off the debate underlining that the EU would look for solutions to the UK’s demands while keeping in mind what is better for the Union as a whole. President Juncker followed suit, endorsing the draft agreement and emphasising that the proposed settlement is fair for the UK, the other 27 Member States and the European Parliament. While pointing out that the UK benefits from more protocols and opt-outs than any other Member State, Juncker conceded that “if the UK considers that it has reached the limits of its EU integration, then that is fine.” Subsequently, ever closer union has already assumed a different meaning in the case of the UK.
With the EU and its Member States still struggling to conjure up a solid, unified and effective action plan to tackle the refugee crisis, and with spring just around the corner and euroskepticism on the rise, one has to wonder whether the meaning of ever closer union could change entirely. As President Juncker remarked, the EP has been drawn into too many debates on domestic issues of late, with the situations in Poland and Denmark being the most recent examples. Indeed, one could argue that the Brexit debate sets a precedent for any Member State government determined to deflect responsibility and blame to Brussels.
A better Europe for all
A substantial majority of MEPs reiterated the importance of keeping the UK in the EU but more importantly, the question of Brexit has invoked a deeper discussion about the future of Europe as the war of words between euroskeptics and pro integration forces and federalists’ and nationalists rages on.
Political ideologies aside, the leaders of the EPP, S&D, ALDE and the Greens share one desire. In unison, they all declared, “We want a better Europe for all” and that this motto should be the centrepiece of the Brexit debate. Similarly, the leader of the ECR, Syed Kamall, acknowledged that the UK’s demands on – economic governance, competitiveness, sovereignty, freedom of movement and social benefits are matters that affect all EU countries. Mr. Kamall emphasised, however, that “there is a massive gap in the perception of the British people and EU politicians.” He highlighted Britain’s pioneering role in the construction of the common market but expressed his shock at statements akin to those made by former French MEP Joseph Daul (EPP President during the previous legislature) following the rejection of the EU Constitutional Treaty. Daul had said in plenary that “Nothing must be allowed to get in the way of the European project and EU political and economic integration.” Kamall noted that as long as this gap in perception endured, the UK will continue to have an ambiguous relationship with the EU. For now, the Tusk letter is a “good place to start” for the UK’s renegotiation.
Brexit: cui bono?
Guy Verhofstadt asserted that the UK was a “dwarf without the EU” but admitted that without the UK, Europe is not a counterweight to Russia, the US and China. According to Verhofstadt, if the UK were to leave the EU, it would be a huge mistake, not so much economically but most of all geopolitically. Verhofstadt stressed that Brexit would be a massive victory for none other than Russia’s Vladimir Putin emphasising that, “he (Putin) and Mr. Farage like a divided Europe.”
On the flipside, Farage described the Tusk letter as “pathetic”, arguing that British Prime Minister (PM) David Cameron has failed to instigate treaty change, repatriation of powers and control over borders. He continued by saying that the British PM had one more chance when he goes to the Summit. Regardless, Farage believes, “there’s not a snowballs chance in Hades” that the British people will vote for this deal.
As the prospect of a UK EU referendum edges closer to reality, the “in-out” debate has almost reached boiling point. Campaigning in the UK, not only by UK representatives, but EU officials too, is expected to be furious. Until such time, the ball is in the hands of the European Council. How this issue is managed could determine not only the UK’s role in the EU, but the future of the EU as a whole.
P.S. Anyone who arrived at the hemicycle five to ten minutes before the start of the debate on the European Council Summit witnessed an unfamiliar sight: Jean Claude-Juncker and the leader of UKIP Nigel Farage shaking hands, patting each other on the back and having a good laugh. Time will tell as to who will have the last laugh…
Constantine Levoyannis is Senior Consultant at FTI Consulting in Brussels.
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