What should Europe do after Brexit?

PUBLISHED: 10:00 12 October 2019

Members of the European Parliament take part in a voting session at the European Parliament in Strasbourg. Photo: FREDERICK FLORIN/AFP/Getty Images

Members of the European Parliament take part in a voting session at the European Parliament in Strasbourg. Photo: FREDERICK FLORIN/AFP/Getty Images

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In his new book Brexiternity, former Europe minister DENIS MacSHANE considers the uncertain fate facing the continent in the coming decades. In this exclusive extract, he suggests some ways in which the EU can survive and prosper.

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Members of the European Parliament take part in a voting session during a plenary session at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, eastern France. Photo: FREDERICK FLORIN/AFP/Getty ImagesMembers of the European Parliament take part in a voting session during a plenary session at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, eastern France. Photo: FREDERICK FLORIN/AFP/Getty Images

As Britain settles into a decade of Brexiternity, what happens to the European Union? There are so many areas of what happens within Europe's nation states that need reform. Following Brexit, there were calls for a new structure for Europe: a 'concentric circle Europe', a 'multi-speed Europe', or a Europe with an inner core of northern eurozone member states and a looser relationship with countries that have difficulty accepting financial and economic discipline.

None of this is new. University library shelves are full of books setting out proposals for a different Europe. Every year think tanks or clusters of self-appointed 'wise men' (for some reason, writing on what the EU needs to do seems a male preserve) produce reports and road maps saying what Europe should do or how the EU should be reformatted. Many of them are written by national politicians now out of office. What they were unable to do in office they can proclaim should be done in retirement. Here are five possible areas of change:

1. Reform European Universities

Universities are bastions of protection, as many across Europe insist that the diplomas and degrees awarded in other countries have no validity when it comes to offering full tenured posts to foreigners. Indeed, if there is one area of Europe crying out for reform, it is the university sector. Take out British universities - which are full of foreign professors, lecturers and above all students - and there is not a single EU university in the world's top 25 universities.

A view of the Berlaymont building, headquarters of the European Union Commission. Photo: DOMINIQUE FAGET/AFP/Getty ImagesA view of the Berlaymont building, headquarters of the European Union Commission. Photo: DOMINIQUE FAGET/AFP/Getty Images

Dutch universities now do their undergraduate teaching in English, as the clever Dutch realise they have to adapt to the world's lingua franca if their higher education is to flourish and serve the national interests of the Netherlands.

By contrast, British universities will be crippled if the Brexit ministers get their way and slow down the arrival of foreign students and teachers on the grounds of curbing immigration.

Universities in North America and Asia have helped source important breakthroughs in new economic added-value activities. Continental European university protectionism has been one of the biggest areas of failure in EU integration.

2. Treat the Commission as ally, not enemy

Migrants and refugees sit on a rubber boat as the Libyan coastguards patrol, during a rescue operation of the Topaz Responder. Photo: ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP/Getty ImagesMigrants and refugees sit on a rubber boat as the Libyan coastguards patrol, during a rescue operation of the Topaz Responder. Photo: ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP/Getty Images

Sandro Gozi was Italy's Europe minister until the populists won power in his country. He is one of the most thoughtful and forceful of the next generation of European politicians. He complains that in the second five-year term of the European Commission president José Manuel Barroso, between 2009 and 2014, "the Commission gave up its role and became a secretariat for national heads of government ever anxious not to oppose them. Berlaymont [the home of the Commission] was reduced to pointless buildings full of offices".

Yet whenever the Commission pleaded with the Italian government of Matteo Renzi, in which Gozi served, to obey core EU rules on debt and deficit and to reform the economy, especially its banks, along lines agreed at EU level, the it was told to go away and stop telling sovereign Italy what to do.

The populist government in Italy has also been telling Brussels to drop dead and not insist on Rome meeting its obligation as a state sharing its currency with countries that obey common eurozone rules.

The idea of a unified Europe based on the eurozone is easy to declare as an ambition. Yet unless national governments of Europe post-Brexit are as willing to share sovereignty as the generation of, say, Kohl, Thatcher and Mitterrand in the 1980s, the stubborn reality of national priorities and preferences will come to replace the integrated cooperation and acceptance of a common rulebook that is essential to make the EU function.

Europe also needs a new journalism. I cannot think of a single book about Europe that I have seen produced in more than at best two languages. This remains one of the fundamental problems of European discussion. There is no common European history, or philosophy, or intellectual opinion shapers, journalists and media that fully transcend borders.

3. Reform the European parliament

It is not the European parliament that needs strengthening, but the role of national parliaments representing the populations of Europe in the democratic supervision of EU decisions.

There was much cheer in 2019 when 50% of European voters cast a vote in the EU elections, yet that still leaves one in two voters indifferent to the idea that the European parliament represents the beating heart of democracy in the EU.

Indeed, there may be a case for arguing that if a nation cannot mobilise more than a quarter or a third of its electorate to vote for representation in the Strasbourg parliament, it should simply not be permitted to have MEPs and instead nominate national MPs, as is the case in the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe.

This may be harsh, but would oblige some political education in Europe about the importance of democratic control and surveillance of EU decisions.

Few MEPs are held accountable by the national or local media for what they do in Strasbourg and Brussels and, as long as they turn up for a few moments and sign an attendance register, can be very well remunerated.

On both the hard left and right there are parties that make populist appeals that win seats in the low-turnout elections to the European parliament and then make no constructive parliamentary contribution to the often detailed and boring oversight work of committees.

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It would be useful to associate national parliaments with the work of the European parliament. One mechanism would be to create a second chamber - a kind of European senate - consisting of national parliamentarians.

Another modest reform would be to build joint committees covering all the main directorates of the European Commission so that national MPs were directly involved in overseeing its work.

A third would be for more joint committees of inquiry to produce special reports relating to EU-wide policy. Much more oversight over EU policy can already be undertaken by national parliaments, including the House of Commons, on their own initiative. One of the first acts of David Cameron when he became prime minister in 2010 was to abolish the regular Commons debate that preceded each EU Council meeting and which obliged ministers to come to the floor of the House to explain the UK government's approach to EU decisions.

This was part of Cameron's disdain and dislike of the EU as an institution. The losers were the British people, who have no idea of how little interest their MPs take in European policy and directives.

Unfortunately the House of Commons, which sees itself as a very superior body, especially in relation to the European parliament, refuses to alter its practices to allow MPs to become involved in EU affairs. MPs who take a serious interest in EU policy are mocked as europhiles and getting reimbursement for any travel in Europe to link with other parliamentarians or MEPs is difficult, with accusations of 'junketeering' thrown at any who think finding out on the spot what is going on in Europe is part of their job.

There could also be term limits on MEPs so that no one who had lost a national seat or job as a minister could be instantly parachuted into Strasbourg, with a maximum of two or three five-year terms so that MEPs are regularly renewed and the European parliament rejuvenated.

A major priority post-Brexit should be to downscale the grandiose buildings and declarations in Brussels and Strasbourg and reconnect the EU to democratic politics at the level of the nation state, sub-nation and region.

4. More Work for Europeans Citizens

In 2017 the EU celebrated its 60th birthday since the founding Treaty of Rome. Compared to the age profile of many European states, the EU is a toddler, barely out of nappies. While the EU is young, Europe is getting older, with a declining birth rate. Thanks to its open borders to immigration from Asia, Britain is one of the few EU nations with a growing population.

But even in Britain the share of the active employed population has fallen below the inactive population (those without work, the young, retired people and others) and the UK needs more healthy, young, tax-paying workers if it is to survive, let alone thrive.

Elsewhere, Europe is ceasing to reproduce itself and one reason for maintaining free movement of workers is to have enough younger low-paid workers to look after ageing Europeans who are too young to die but too old to wash, clean and feed themselves.

The figures are alarming. In Italy more than 50% of voters are aged over 50. There are only six professors out of 13,000 in Italy under 40. In Britain, an estimated 12.5 million jobs will be opened up in the years to 2025 through people leaving the workforce and an additional two million new jobs will be created, yet only seven million new younger people will be available to enter the workforce to fill these jobs. For the first time in British history we have fewer people at work than the rest of the population.

Europeans retire far too early to eke out a third of their life on a pension and become increasingly dependent on supplementary social assistance paid for by taxpayers.

The pension age of 65 was dreamt up by Bismarck when the 19th century German leader introduced Europe's first national pension system. Average male life expectancy in Germany in the 1870s was 49, so many more paid into the pension insurance scheme than were paid from it. Today there should be every encouragement for older people to work.

In 1958, John F. Kennedy wrote a book entitled A Nation of Immigrants. As US president he abolished early 20th century laws trying to stop Asians arriving to work and live in the United States and other unworkable quotas on immigration. As a result of this arrival of new energy in the form of hardworking immigrants, America enjoyed some of its best year-on-year growth rates since the First World War.

If Europe is to get moving again, then a more welcome and positive approach to people movement into and across its frontiers is required.

5. Europe must take more responsibility for its own defence

Winston Churchill, speaking in August 1950 at the Council of Europe, urged the "immediate creation of a unified European army". Europe is still waiting. The Czech Republic spends just 1% of GDP on defence and Italy spends 1.3% - both well below the 2% which Nato expects of its members. In both countries defence expenditure has gone down despite the threat of Russian aggressive posturing, the continuing neighbourhood crises that Europe faces, and the constant urging from the US that Europe accept more responsibility for defence.

The eastern and southern Mediterranean is a mixture of conflict zone and a region where people-smuggling - the transportation of illegal immigrants, occasionally Islamist jihadis into Europe - is rife. This is the continent's most important external frontier, but it is without defence, regular patrols, or aggressive naval action against criminals.

Instead of allocating more of their national budgets to control Europe's external borders and send messages about readiness to defend European interests, Prague and Rome want someone else to do the job.

EU nations produce 37 different types of tank or armoured vehicle, 18 different types of warplane and seven different types of naval frigate. This duplication and refusal to copy the example of Airbus and have a single, or just a few, military products reveal how backward and protectionist EU nations are.

As well as the threat from Russia, Europe must wake up to the rising power of a China that has nothing but contempt for core European values: political democracy, freedom of expression, self-organisation. China is using money power to buy influence in Europe and military power to establish bases in the seas off Asian nations or on the coast of Pakistan. Capitalism has fused with communism in China to create a new force field for the world's most populous nation. At a minimum, the EU should shape a common approach and should step up dialogue with Japan, Korea, Malaysia, India and other democracies closer to China to be ready if at any moment China's advance as a world power threatens European interests.

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