As Giuseppe Conte is sworn in as Italy’s new PM, be ready for torrents of articles proclaiming (again) the end of the EU, the Eurozone, life as we know it. But, maybe you shouldn’t prepare for the end, or perhaps celebrate ‘their’ end. The following explains why a Five Star and League coalition in Italy is a bad thing (for Italy primarily), but it will not change much for Europe, and Brexit Britain.
Let me explain it like this: You probably remember the 2001 Nicole Kidman light horror film, The Others. The story was about a family dealing with some strange ghosts around their house, but the trick was (surely you are not concerned about a spoiler of an old film?) that Nicole’s family were in fact the ghosts.
The predicament that Britain finds itself in with Brexit is very similar to the storyline of The Others. Worried about intrusions to its sovereignty and armed with a belief in the Kingdom’s innate superiority over European institutions and structures, the British elite thought that Brexit (however ill-thought) would be manageable and would not fracture Britain’s relationship with Europe. They thought they were part of the real, central, necessary western world. By attempting to Brexit however, Britain has revealed itself to its ex-comrades in Europe as part of The Others. This dynamic is far more serious that currently appreciated in this country and will have enduring, permanent consequences for Britain’s position in the world. There are three main reasons that explain this, Europe’s place in a post-American world, the necessity for an independent European defence capability and the consequences of Europe’s debt crisis. Let us have a look of each of these in turn.
As an editorial from Der Spiegel recently explained, Europe needs to come to terms with the notion that ‘the west’ is no longer defined by America. The Trump effect is that the US now charts a trajectory not only away, but often in direct conflict with European interests. This is evident in areas such as the environment (withdrawal from the Paris Accord), international relations (withdrawal from the Iran deal) and trade (withdrawal from the TTIP negotiations). Europe can no longer rely on America to spearhead the western ways in the world. The consequence is that Europe needs to assume that role itself. The necessary implication is that Europe will need to forge ahead with further integration in foreign policy, coming together to play the role of an independent superpower.
American withdrawal is not limited to foreign affairs, trade, economics and responses to international problems like climate change. Europe can no longer rely on America to defend it against external enemies. The need to respond to the refugee crisis and secure external borders; the necessity of intervening in external conflicts (like Syria) and the maintenance of a credible deterrent against existential threats like Russian aggression require a fully integrated and capable European defence. Trump’s US cannot be relied on to defend Europe against aggressors and certainly will prioritise its own interests in areas like combatting terrorism and financial crime. The inevitable conclusion drawn by European policy-makers is that Europe needs to stand on its own feet in its ability to defend itself.
Last but not least is the need to ensure the long term survival of the European economy and the euro. Of course, the EU is larger than the Euro, but a failure of the common currency will not just spell the end of the Eurozone, it will most likely spell the end of the entire project of European integration. The debt crisis shows that the euro is not sustainable without further policy consolidation (in banking and fiscal policy) and the costs of stepping back are too high. A European economic federation is on the way as well as common external policy and defence.
Like it or loathe it, the 21st Century will see a Europe united in ways that ambitious European policy makers only dreamed of a few years ago. Acknowledging this reality does not mean that one is a federalist or an ardent Europhile. Wordy theses as to European identity aside (one can read too much Habermas), emergencies require action, and the only action available to Europe is more Europe.
Where is Britain in all of this and why is it a problem? In the new Europe that will emerge out of the need to respond to Trump, economic and security needs, there will be no place for a country that was once half-in and then left altogether. Those used to opt outs, pay as you go arrangements and capriciousness will no longer be welcome. Both proponents and enemies of Brexit in Britain make the same mistake. They assume that the choice is Britain’s to make and that Europe will be happy to engage in a relationship with this island either through some loose trade agreement or future full membership or something in between. The choice is not Britain’s to make. For Britain to Brexit and then re-join from the fringes is no longer an option. Once out, Britain is out for good. Out means you are forever with Trump and the ‘Others’.
What does this mean for a current understanding of Brexit within Britain? It means that everyone needs to appreciate that if the deadline of next April is reached and Britain exits, there will be no return. There will be no place for Britain in Europe’s New Order. Do not fool yourselves in thinking that a temporary populist government in Italy has any impact on these longer term trends.