MPs Face Post-Brexit Challenges
A month after the Bratislava Summit where heads of state of the 27 European Union member states met in the absence of their U.K. counterpart for the first time in 43 years, members of European national parliaments (MPs) from across party and committee lines convened at the Mercator European Dialogue to confront the profound uncertainty enveloping the future of the Union.
The meeting of the Mercator European Dialogue network of parliamentarians took place this month in an unusually tense atmosphere, as it soon became apparent that the U.K.’s decision to leave the EU represented for many of the MPs not only a functional challenge but an emotional strain as many voiced feelings of abandonment and betrayal.
“We expected this sort of behavior from Russia, not from the U.K. — we have lost a democratic reference.”
“For Slovakia, the EU represented the goal — critical to the country´s democratisation. We did not expect to witness one of its members just quit.”
Pushed by a sense of political disorientation and a desire to grasp the political developments steering Europe into uncharted waters, MPs shared national perspectives on the policy issues dominating their respective national agendas and their views on how critical EU challenges are perceived and addressed in different national contexts. Unveiling deep divisions between northern, southern and eastern Europe, but also within countries themselves, MPs touched upon the issues of security, immigration, radicalization, economics, and identity before reflecting on the way these policy areas are being affected by drivers such as European fragmentation, the increasing use of direct democracy and referenda, the enduring EU blame-game, the simplification of political discourse and messaging, and the rise of anti-establishmentarianism.
Structural reforms are rapidly losing any remaining credibility and support in Greece. In the absence of any plans for broader and wider EU restructuring, one MP warned that the already frail societal acquiescence of the severe measures imposed by Brussels will rupture. The lack of an EU economic strategy beyond austerity is also being felt in Italy, where despite a proliferation of reforms, “without a boost in demand, there is little impact reforms can achieve.”
The topic of the growing economic divergence between northern and southern states, and in particular the issue of the ´transfer union´ remains particularly contentious. “We are already de facto in a transfer union from the north to the south” argued one Dutch MP, contradicted by another, who claimed that whilst the EU is indeed already a transfer union — and has been since the birth of the euro — monetary and trade flows still disproportionately favour the North.
MPs underscored how the securitisation of national debates, has led to rare and isolated fear-inducing incidents — ranging from terrorist attacks to episodes fuelling the perception of Russian or Islamic influence as a threat — hijacking entire political agendas. Perceived by citizens as a basic necessity, voters’ security concerns must be addressed swiftly and resolutely by both member states and the EU in cooperation, if the EU is to avoid the breakdown of acquired European rights such as the freedom of movement.
European leadership, including the role played by Germany, was criticised for lack of ambition. “The focus is no longer on moving forward but on ensuring minimum cohesion across the EU.” A post-Brexit paralysis affecting EU leaders as they shy away from any policy or measure which could be deemed controversial at this moment in time.
Despite voicing very different perspectives, the MPs recognized that often the problems that they thought of as country-specific were in fact not. Holding diametrically opposed perspectives of the same problem does not automatically mean that Europe is not facing shared challenges and that solutions should not be equally shared.
Exploring possible future scenarios for the EU, MPs dwelled on the high level of uncertainty surrounding the evolution of key trends and triggers and their impact on national and European politics. From the unlikely progression to a tighter union to the delicate management of a Europe of different speeds, sentiments clustered around the recognition that a multi-tiered Europe is indeed the scenario closest to the current reality of the EU, and that its mismanagement — considered a highly likely development and to many degrees already underway — could easily trigger a quick descent into the disintegration of the EU and bring us closer to a conflict-over-cooperation paradigm for Europe.
There is a clear need for intensified dialogue among the shapers of political discourse in Europe, in order to maintain some degree of control over the drivers and trends propelling Europe towards the future. In particular, the need for more EU-focused opportunities for conversations targeted at national policy and opinion makers, and namely, national parliamentarians. Recognizing that what has so far been achieved through the tool of European integration and cooperation is very much at stake, there is an urgent need to showcase possible alternative futures for the EU across member states, to attempt to regain a collective perception of the vision of Europe, defined by our aspirations, just as much as by our fears of what the future may hold.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.