A messy divorce, and a constructive way forward

Clive Sneddon, scottish Alde IM give us a point of view about Brexit, ALDE uncertain future for British members and a way to forward

The vision of Europe which resonates for me is the one attributed to two Italian prisoners of war who imagined a Europe in which war is unthinkable as a result of Europeans living and working in each others’ countries and getting to know each other.

Today’s European Union derives, not from the 1946 Monnet Plan to annex the Saar and Ruhr valleys approved by De Gaulle as head of the French provisional Government, but from the Schuman Declaration of 9th May 1950, which envisages concrete steps to be taken by France and Germany and any other state wishing to join them to make war materially impossible.

A vision of individual Europeans getting to know each other is not the same as a vision of states working together. The most powerful institution of the EU today is the Council of Ministers, a set of people elected by their own national voters, with no European remit, who fight for their country’s interests in Brussels. And yet, paradoxically, each major treaty of the EU involves movement towards a United States of Europe, as in Schengen and the Eurozone.

These two differing visions of Europe have led to the messy divorce that is Brexit. Those who were able to study, work, research, marry and retire in other member states agree with the Italian prisoners of war. Those in Britain who were promised economic benefits on joining the then EEC in the 1970s, but feel left behind by the world economy, see no reason to stay in a group of states that from their point of view has not delivered economically, treats other member states such as Greece harshly, and arrives at decisions the European Parliament will then impose whatever national parliaments say.

It is clearly harder to realise a vision of states working together than a vision of people working together. An enterprise begun by France and Germany, whose major decisions all require France and Germany to agree before other states are brought on board, does not feel like a partnership of equals. The 1960s demonstrated this, when De Gaulle twice vetoed British applications to join the EEC, and forced through the Common Agricultural Policy in 1965 by paralysing all decision-making until he got his way. Pompidou then created a Common Fisheries Policy as a pre-condition of entry when four applications were live, and Norway in the end declined to join as a result.

The EU’s reaction to the 2016 Brexit vote fits this history of states pursuing their own self-interest. First the arguments over which state shall get which EU institution from the UK. Then the insistence on only the UK making proposals, and judging every proposal by the EU’s rule book, which had no provision for cherry picking. And now the proposal that after Brexit the UK shall be bound by EU rules on state aid, and shall give over its fishing grounds to France, with President Macron insisting that the UK must accept what the EU offers.

From this messy divorce, there are lessons to be learned on both sides. The UK should for its part not accept something it does not agree with, even for a package it otherwise wants. The Fisheries Policy was a problem from the beginning, while the acceptance as a member of one supra-national element, the pre-eminence of European Parliamentary legislation, was a mistake, ruthlessly exploited by the Leave campaign.

The EU should recognise that its political project has hit the buffers. The 2009 Lisbon Treaty has not so far led to a United States of Europe, and it seems unlikely it ever will. The EU had a future when individual states were queuing up to join. Once one state has left, it cannot achieve Europe-wide union.

I am a convinced European, but Italian prisoner of war style. As an individual member of ALDE, I have subscribed to the Stuttgart declaration. Eligibility to join ALDE ends when the UK’s transition period ends. If ALDE wants to be a wider movement of pro-European individuals, it should accept members of parties belonging to Liberal International from any European country. It should also recognise that the Stuttgart declaration’s institutional building blocks have been achieved but helped bring about Brexit, which means ALDE needs a new founding declaration. What can ALDE do to help Europeans get to know each other better?

I would suggest it could encourage the EU to allow people to work in each other’s countries and get to know each other without their country having to belong to the Single Market. It could also advocate creating a European citizenship, open to any citizen of a European country. After the messy divorce, a constructive approach to working with all European non-member states of the EU would be welcome. Time is now needed for British public opinion to evolve, but a positive evolution will be much easier to achieve if the EU is prepared to extend the hand of friendship now.

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