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This op-ed is part of the FT’s Future of Britain Project. We are inviting readers, commentators and thought leaders to brainstorm ideas for the future of Britain after Brexit. This piece is in response to the fourth and final topic: what future is there for the EU post-Brexit? For an alternative view, FT Europe editor Tony Barber outlines his vision for the EU. Submit your own idea here.
The High Court ruling on the role of parliament in taking Britain out of the EU has switched the focus to domestic matters. If Britain leaves the EU, the 27 remaining EU members will have to agree and the European Parliament will need to give its consent. The British cannot expect their partners to give up the core principles of the EU nor should the powerful dynamics that will shape tomorrow’s Europe be underestimated.
Article 50 foresees the sovereign right of a country to leave the EU, not to reshape it. Only the UK has held a referendum but public opinion in other countries is calling for change and no one knows where that could lead. This situation creates a strong incentive for governments to maintain the status quo.
Furthermore, membership of the single market, which some UK politicians want, simply does not exist. The single market is based on supranational rules enforced by supranational institutions, especially the European Court of Justice. For many continental Europeans, the core objective goes significantly beyond a free market. Common values, enshrined in the Charter of Human Rights, and social and environmental standards are essential, as is a supranational budget. Even the governments of Hungary and Poland do not complain about cross-border transfers, worth respectively €19.5bn and €69bn from 2014 to 2020.
To allow any cherry-picking of the four freedoms — movement of people, goods, services and capital — would destroy the EU. The current balance is the result of decades of give and take: for example, the free movement of people to compensate eastern member states for western countries’ competitive advantage in goods and services. Labour mobility also contributes to an optimum allocation of resources. This is as true for scientific researchers as for carers of elderly people. The European Parliament will defend the four freedoms, keeping in mind that safeguards have been authorised by the European Court of Justice in case of abusive “benefit tourism”.
For historical reasons, as well as for the benefit of its remarkable export industry, Germany will not put the integrity of the single market in danger. Nor will France give up its vision of a sovereign eurozone, which requires control over some financial activities.
It is not a question of hard or soft Brexit. Even the close partnerships the EU has forged with neighbours such as Norway or Switzerland are based on accepting free movement of people, EU rules and budgetary solidarity. The only alternative is a comprehensive free trade agreement between the UK as a third country and the EU.
No one can predict what the EU will look like in 10 years’ time. Strong internal disintegration forces exist. They create negative dynamics, hampering the economic governance of the eurozone as well as the success of any common migration policy. Solidarity is being undermined, which makes the commonly envisaged scenario of an integrated core surrounded by a reluctant periphery a less credible option.
Nevertheless, two external phenomena are creating a dialectic that could be stronger than the internal European disputes. Security will become ever more crucial: the continent is surrounded by authoritarian countries, such as Russia and Turkey, as well as unstable regions from Africa to the Middle East. Islamist terrorism is threatening our cities. Irrespective of the outcome of the US election, the American presence in Europe will be reduced. The need to tackle defence issues could result in a leap towards integration. Security crisis management has little to do with a rules-based EU dealing mainly with the economy. This could result in deep splits in the EU — or save it.
In a globalised world, scale is of the utmost importance. European integration is vital, to secure favourable trade deals and to safeguard data protection or intellectual property rights. It is time to admit that the best way to remain sovereign is to pool our national sovereignties. The withdrawal of the UK, which, for example, blocked the adoption of anti-dumping measures against China might help the EU to be more assertive in delivering what its citizens expect in times of globalisation.
This does not mean that all Europeans will suddenly become Europhiles nor that today’s problems will disappear. But in an uncertain geopolitical environment, and taking into account the costs and difficulties of Brexit, it will become increasingly evident that a marriage of convenience can look better than a divorce.
The writer is a member of the European Parliament, where she sits with the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats