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Brexit and the Zealots

February 1, 2020

So, we lost Britain. Some people are happy, some are sad, often for the wrong reasons. I think that it would never have happened if the Brits and the Europeans had been slightly more pragmatic, especially the Europeans.


Some say that the Brits never really bought into the European project. They just wanted to trade and escape all the rest. They never accepted our sacred principles, like mobility of everything (goods, services, people, capital), they only wanted to pick and choose what served their narrow commercial interests. They made everything more complicated with their rebates, their exemptions and their vetoes. They think that they are recovering freedom but, in fact, it is the other Europeans who are now ready to plough ahead with European integration. De Gaulle was right, after all, they do not belong to Europe, they really are xenophobic. Good riddance.


Events and reactions to Brexit are said to reveal allow us to see who the true believers are. They see a path to full integration, budgets, armies and governments. Everything we do must get us closer to this objective, which is our destiny. Some countries are not ready, yet? No problem, the pioneers will lead the way, keeping the renovated common house open to the laggards. After all, this is what happened. Six countries created the European Community in 1957 and, look, 22 joined later on. One just left, big deal! Several are banging at the door, soon we’ll be more that 30. And no need to dig a tunnel to go anywhere in the Union (by the way, it has been long and hard to convince the Brits about the tunnel.)


There are many sorts of true believers, however. There are the Zealots, who managed to let Britain go. A few things could have gone otherwise if we had been more forthcoming before the ill-fated referendum. Labor mobility is the clear example. Britain was the choice destination for hundreds of thousand East Europeans, because it could offer jobs to all of them. It benefitted everyone, starting with the Natives who did not want to pass dishes in restaurants or pick the garbage out. But, as everywhere else in the world, when many foreigners come at the same time, xenophobia is on the rise, just ask the Germans, the French, the Italians. Xenophobia is mean, bad and silly, but it is also human. So, we had to choose between tweaking the labor mobility principle and losing Britain. The Zealots never compromise on principles and we lost Britain. I know, it is written in the Treaties, so near-impossible to change, even if we want to. Well, there are many things in the Treaties that we overlook when convenient. For example, the no-bailout clause was ignored when it became binding for the first time; smart lawyers told politicians how to do it legally. Smart layers could have found ways to keep Britain in by also tweaking fishing rights, consumer protection agreements and all the things that outraged enough Brits to give a majority to “leave”. Flexibility on our part would have shown the Brits that we love them enough to sacrifice a few sacred cows. Maybe we did not love them enough.


Of course, officially, the top reason for upholding the sacred acquis communautaires was the fear of precedent. Give in to the Brits and tomorrow a long line will form at Berlaymont, asking for flexibility on everything. The Hungarians and the Poles will ask for the right to stab judicial independence, the Italians will want to be exempt from the rigors of the Stability Pact, every country will ask to pay less and receive more. Sticking with principles no matter what is what the Zealots preach.


There are other true believers, though. They supported the monetary union among independent states even though nearly everybody warned that it cannot work. It almost failed, but it still is in place and no country left. Public opinion against the euro then reached a low but it is now back to where it was before the crisis. Monetary union is unprecedented (there are a few other monetary unions but they differ in many ways), and so is the Single Market. We Europeans can be amazingly innovating. The Union has to be innovative too. Not a federation, but nearly so, we can have loose arrangements to meet the wishes of member states. It is much more delicate than adhering to unmovable truths. Non-Zealots true believers think that we could have allowed Britain to be exempt in some way from labor mobility while sticking with judicial independence. The acquis communautaires are not all born equal, we must learn how to accept to step back on some and not on others.


More deeply, the Treaties are the outcome of a decades-old sedimentation of negotiations, many of which were concluded late in the night among exhausted officials. Several agreements do not make much sense. Most may look anecdotal but each one aggravates some citizens and feed euroscepticism, as we could see during the Brexit referendum. It is easy to dismiss these petty grievances but much harder to open the Pandora box. We may not lose another country some time soon, much will depend on how Britain fares outside the EU, but populism is on the rise everywhere and thrives on euroscepticism. We may end up with much worse than more exits from the EU. Think about the possibility that most countries are run by the likes of Salvini, Orban or Le Pen. They too are Zealots, of another kind.


We should not be in a position where we have to choose between Zealots. It is high time for the Heads of States and Governments to break out of their tendency to ignore warning signals and to mechanically conjure up further integration steps without first cleaning things up. It is also time for the Commission to realize that being guardian of the treaties is not a matter of just upholding holly scriptures but also of updating counter-productive rules. It would be sad to waste Brexit.

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