Exit Europe? Rafaël Philippen

Exit Europe?

Written by  Hans van Vinkeveen Tuesday, 27 September 2016 11:27


Brexit is shaking the very foundations of Europe. But it doesn’t have to be disastrous, according to Mathieu Segers, professor of Contemporary European History. It is revealing the fault lines between social classes and between member states, to be sure, but that yields insight. The real crisis concerns the integration ideal. This is crunch time – so how can Europe move past it? “National politicians really have to start engaging with the European project.”


“Brexit is the alarm that’s woken us all with a rude shock”, Segers says. “It reveals a clear division between cosmopolitans and the working class. And in a traditionally class-based society like the UK, this division is even starker.” In Segers’s view, Europe has gradually forgotten its socioeconomic ‘losers’, the people who are stuck dealing with the downside of free movement. “And yet the treaties revolve around the cornerstone of the ‘social market economy’, a common market couched in social policy. Thanks to Brexit, this core European theme is on the agenda once again.”


But if Europe wants to learn the right lessons from Brexit, it also needs to reckon with a difference in collective consciousness. “Britons are less haunted by the spectre of war and strong nation states than are continental Europeans, and so are less willing to surrender powers to Brussels. They see patriotism not as a threat but as salvation. For them, Europe stands for a single market without trade barriers, and nothing more.”

The problem is that a comparable fault line is emerging between Western and Eastern European member states. “The Eastern countries struggled for many years under ‘international solidarity’ imposed from the top down. In their eyes, it was patriotism that brought about the fall of communism. The nation state protects them from history repeating itself, whereas Europe is there to facilitate it.” This alternative view of the nation state receives too little sympathy, Segers believes.


Brexit is not only throwing a spotlight on the fault lines in the European integration project. “It also reveals an alternative to the Brussels model of European integration. The story used to be, either you’re in or you’re out in the cold. Brexit will make clear to everyone what you get when you’re in Europe, and what the consequences are if you leave. That’s healthy and good for the democratic debate.”

It has become apparent that the old formula the European Union falls back on for every problem – more integration, more cooperation – is no longer credible. Take the refugee problem: “European ideals like humanity may be professed in the treaties, but they are ignored in policy debates. In fact, it often seems that Europe can’t live up to these ideals at all. Consider the treatment of refugees or the deal with Turkey, a country with a less than stellar record on human rights. Ambitions seem to be merely for show. As a result, the aversion and distrust of centralised solutions only increases. This is the true crisis of Europe: the crisis of its own credibility.”

Different Speeds
In the absence of reform of the EU, there seems to be no way out of the integration crisis. In Segers’s view, the two extremes – the nation state or a federation of states – are equally unrealistic
. The most promising alternative may be a ‘multi-speed’ Europe of the kind proposed as early as 1994 by the present German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble. “A leading group of Western European countries would demonstrate how profitable European integration can be, and the other member states could then decide whether they want to join an experiment or not.” In fact, this type of Europe already exists; not all countries have the euro or are members of Schengen. “It’s just that we’ve shied away from drawing attention to these different speeds, for fear it would be detrimental to the sense of community. Such denial is no longer sustainable.”

Whatever its form, it is crucial that the Europe of the future has a democratic mandate. “That can’t come from the European Commission, which is not elected, or from the European Parliament, which has not shown itself to be mature enough.” The only fully fledged democratic arenas are, as Segers sees it, the national parliaments. It now falls to them to step up to the plate. “The national leaders need to engage with the European project and prove that cooperation pays off. Too often they’ve managed to shirk this responsibility and hide behind the European institutions. If this engagement is not forthcoming, then Brexit will mark the start of the unravelling of European integration.”

Herculean task
This is crunch time for the future of Europe. "In the current upheaval, you can see that even values long considered unassailable - a belief in diaologue, in common solutions to cross-border problems - are losing ground. It would be a tragedy if these values were lost. An entirely different reality would take their place, and when you look at European history, it's impossible to feel at ease with the idea of such a new world."

It is up to politicians to steer clear of this doomsday scenario. This will be a Herculean task – but first they need to win back their credibility. Segers’s advice: don’t wait until the very last minute to come up with a joint plan of action, and stop making promises and commitments that will only end up being broken. “The motto should be, better to do nothing than to pretend to be doing something. In politics nothing is more important than credibility. If you lose that, you’re on a slippery slope.”

Mathieu Segers (1976) is professor of Contemporary European History and European Integration at Maastricht University and dean of the University College Maastricht. He specialises in post-war relations between West Germany and France and trans-Atlantic relations in the context of European integration. His book Reis naar het continent. Nederland en de Europese integratie 1950-heden won the prize for the best Dutch political book of 2013. Segers is also a columnist for the newspaper Het Financieele Dagblad.

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