Pushing for deeper European integration in defiance of public sentiment would be catastrophic, writes Sholto Byrnes
The quest for a 'United States of Europe' exemplifies the EU elite's contempt for people's wishes
Whatever temporary reprieve the British prime minister may have earned in the Brexit negotiations last Friday, it remains clear that the process that will lead to the UK’s eventual departure from the European Union is a mess of contradictions. The status of the “divorce” settlement appears to be purposefully unclear, as does the kind of Brexit that Mrs May’s government wants at the end of it all.
No wonder the percentage of Britons who think Tory ministers have been pursuing the negotiations badly has risen from 41 to 61 per cent since February, while Leave voters are now so pessimistic about the eventual outcome that only 28 per cent of them still think the UK will get a good deal (down from 51 per cent).
You might have thought all of this would have persuaded many to think that the referendum was a dreadful error; that Britain should change its mind and stay in the EU after all. But attitudes to the result of the vote, as tracked by the polling firm YouGov, show that the numbers who thought it right or wrong to Leave have been roughly even over the last year or so.
This might be partly because pro-Remain politicians have bent over backwards to reassure everyone that they respect the “will of the people”. Nobody wants to be caught not accepting the result of the referendum (in public, at least). It may be partly because EU officials have given every appearance of taking pleasure in being as punitive and inflexible to the UK as possible and have managed to force Mrs May to cave on just about every point, including agreeing to pay an outrageous bill for leaving a club to which the UK has long made a massive net contribution of $10.7 billion per year.
But it could also be that the British people, in their wisdom, were onto something about the EU all along. And that is that the EU elite, who have always called the shots and have always determined the long-term trajectory of the bloc, will never give up on their plan to impose “ever closer union”, regardless of whether the people of Europe desire it or not.
The former president of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, made this clear last week. Now the leader of Germany’s SPD, Mr Schulz said he wants a “United States of Europe” by 2025 – and any country that doesn’t agree should be booted out. “A convention shall draft this treaty in close cooperation with the civil society and the people”, he tweeted last Thursday. "Its results will then be submitted to all member states. Any state that won’t ratify this treaty will automatically leave the EU.”
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Many across the bloc are opposed to the dream of a federal Europe about which Mr Schulz has, to give him some credit, finally come clean. And it may be that the timetable he has set – 2025 is only eight years from now – is too short for success to be possible. But the Eurofanatics have a habit of circumventing any such hurdles, including the stated wishes of the people of member states.
In the past, they mostly managed to get around the problem of a country voting “no” on an EU-related referendum by asking them to have another one, and would they please vote the “right” way this time? When that proved tricky, as when the French voted down the proposed EU constitution in 2005, their ingenuity was more than equal to the task. The constitution was out? Never mind. Simply call it something else.
Its author, former French president Valery Giscard d’Estaing, confessed to the deception in a newspaper letter in which he wrote that “the institutional proposals of the constitutional treaty ... are found complete in the Lisbon Treaty, only in a different order and inserted in former treaties”.
So Mr Schulz’s pipe dream should not be ruled out. Moreover, he has a burgeoning alliance with France’s president, Emmanuel Macron. Mr Macron has not outright called for a United States of Europe but he has just been awarded the Charlemagne prize for being “a courageous pioneer for the revitalisation of the European dream,” who would “put Europe firmly back in the hearts of the people,” according to the awards board. He wants a Eurozone budget and finance minister, and deeper integration. On the latter, also with him is Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel, who has just signalled her keenness to form a coalition with Mr Schulz precisely so Germany and France can push forward this “historical necessity”.
At a time when nationalism is rising in many parts of Europe, careening towards a federal union would be catastrophic. Far from strengthening the EU, Mr Schulz appears to be intensely sanguine about dismembering it – for he cannot believe that all member states would vote “yes” for a United States of Europe. As the former UKIP leader Nigel Farage tweeted: “If this is the route they are taking, it could be a very small European Union”. Indeed, if a recent report by Chatham House in London is anything to go by, it could be tiny, as they identified only eight per cent of the 10,000 people they surveyed as “federalists” who supported the notion.
The only silver lining would be if a core EU did go its own way, leaving other European countries to form a new free trade area devoid of the diktats of Brussels. That may be the Eurosceptic’s dream. What Mr Schulz has crystallised, however, is the nightmare Britain has avoided by voting Leave. Escaping that fate will be worth it, however badly the negotiations go – and that should be no small consolation.
Sholto Byrnes is a senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia