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27th Nov 2021

EU divided on answer to Brexit 'wake up call'

  • Some member states suggested the EU Commission would have to be reformed too, to close the gap between the EU and its citizens (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

Twenty-seven EU leaders will meet on Wednesday (29 June) for the first time without their UK counterpart to discuss the British divorce and future EU reforms.

Last UK vote to leave the EU rang “alarm bells” across the continent that EU structures are too detached from citizens, giving rise to populism and euroscepticsm.

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Diplomats and officials in Brussels said there is need for deep reflection on how to bring the union closer to the general public.

“The [public’s] attachment to the European project is not enough to offset the negative forces of withdrawal and rejection that are being expressed everywhere in Europe,” one EU diplomat said.

Another diplomat said: “We need to listen and understand that there is an alarm bell, we need to change things”. A third EU diplomat used the same terms, saying: “This [the Brexit vote] is a very serious wake up call”.

The immediate reaction is expected to be a show of unity by the 27, leaving substantial talks for later.

Sources said EU council chief Donald Tusk might draft an informal ideas paper for Wednesday morning to serve as a basis for the summit talks, but that there would be no conclusions on the way forward.

They also said the EU self-reflection process would lack the grandeur of previous intergovernmental “conventions”.

“We don’t expect conclusions on Wednesday, we do not expect another European convention, this process cannot be carried out by ‘wise-men’,” an EU source said.

An EU official noted: “You don't need to be Einstein to understand that if you launch a debate on substance now there will be no unity. In the current context, we cannot … promise things we cannot guarantee”.

New big three

France, Germany and Italy, the EU’s post-Brexit big three, on Monday already called for deeper EU integration in areas of clear common interest.

German chancellor Angela Merkel, French president Francois Hollande and Italian PM Matteo Renzi said in a joint statement (27 June) in Berlin that they have a “strong commitment to European integration.”

They said the EU should work more intensively in areas such as security, economic union, and social cohesion, but take a back seat on issues that capitals can better handle at home.

Germany had wanted stronger economic union, while social cohesion is a priority for southern EU states, which need to create jobs for young people.

The big three promised to start detailed talks in September and to agree a plan by December. They also spoke of reaffirming the European project in March 2017, the EU’s 60th birthday.

In line with that idea, EU council chief Donald Tusk indicated on Tuesday (28 June) arriving to the summit of EU leaders that he would call an informalmeeting of the 27 in Spetember in Bratislava for talks on the EU's future.

But Monday’s statement focused on listing joint policies instead of structural EU reform. It also did not mention how to tackle issues of immediate concern to average people, such as the migration crisis.

Reform, not integration

Meanwhile, other EU leaders think that further integration is not the solution.

Poland said on Monday the EU should draft a new treaty that returns powers from the European Commission to the Council of the EU, where member states meet.

It also called for commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker and council head Donald Tusk to resign over Brexit.

There is no appetite for treaty change elsewhere in Europe due to fears that it would open a Pandora’s Box of national demands for opt-ins and opt-outs.

But some officials said the future role of the EU Commission and its president would have to come up for debate in the reform process.

The mood inside the EU corridors was dim, sources said. They said it was necessary to restore trust between member states and the commission and for national leaders to stop scapegoating EU institutions.

“It doesn’t work that the leaders blame the EU for everything. It sends the wrong message [to the general public],” one EU contact said.

Real world issues

Josef Janning, a scholar of EU affairs at the ECFR think tank in Berlin, said the statement issued on Monday by France, Germany and Italy “was careful and cautious” and designed to give the impression of “business as usual.”

He told EUobserver that Merkel did want to rush the UK, but neither the EU, so it does not commit to something now it cannot deliver later.

He said Merkel is herself in a tricky position because there is no consensus on deeper EU integration inside the German government.

Janning advised leaders to quickly address issues of pressing public concern, such as migration and economic structural issues in southern member states, to regain trust.

He said the EU needed a critical mass of member states that were ready to act, noting that the concerns of countries such as Poland or Hungary ought to be, and could be accommodated.

“I would advise to rebuild the political centre in Europe and focus on delivering on the existing crises,” he said.

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The general public and financial markets are waiting for the EU's response to the British shock. But when leaders meet at next week's summit, there will be more questions than answers.

Opinion

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Leaders rule out treaty change to reform EU

EU leaders have discussed how to reform the union in the wake of Brexit, but the main faultlines will only be exposed in Bratislava in September. Treaty change remains taboo, for now.

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