EU split over pace of reform as crisis bites

Guy Verhofstadt
Guy Verhofstadt

There is a theory in politics that times of upheaval and uncertainty present opportunities as well as problems. It's best summed up in the saying that you should never let a good crisis go to waste - an aphorism so seductive that it has been attributed to all the usual historical suspects, from Machiavelli to Winston Churchill. It is perhaps in this spirit that the European Parliament has been debating how the EU is going to work in future, in the looming shadow of Brexit. The UK's vote to leave the EU, last June, came as a seismic shock to most MEPs. And many are quite open in their view that it amounts to a self-destructive decision by the British to uncouple themselves from one of modern history's primary drivers of peace and prosperity. British Eurosceptics of course would cast the Brexit vote in an entirely different light, and now foresee a future in which the UK will be free to make its fortune - and make its own new global trading relationships - unfettered from the dead hand of stifling Brussels bureaucracy. It will be years of course - perhaps many years - before we know who is on the right side of that debate.

United Europe ambition

But one consequence of Brexit is already with us - the EU is now free to debate how it might work in the future without any input from the UK. In theory that should leave Europe's federalists freer to dream than they have been in the past. Britain's voice has generally been raised to question the wisdom and value of further integration that would give EU institutions greater powers at the expense of individual national governments. You would expect such dreams to be articulated best by Guy Verhofstadt - the former prime minister of Belgium, who now leads the liberal bloc in the European Parliament and who will represent that body in Brexit negotiations. In the debate on future reform Mr Verhofstadt said: "The union is in crisis. The European Union doesn't have much friends: not at home, not abroad. "The Union does not deliver anymore. Rather than to talk about an 'ever closer union', we have a union of 'too little, too late'. "That's why people are angry: they see all these European institutions, all these summits, all these empty words, but they don't see enough results." Mr Verhofstadt has a long list of suggested fixes for this continental malaise, including reducing or ending the right of individual members to opt out of collective decisions - something no British government would ever have countenanced. He has other ideas for how the EU should respond to Brexit too - including moving out of London the headquarters of two EU agencies: the European Banking Authority and the European Medicines Agency.

Cautious EU Commission

But for now, at least, it seems radical visions for reform will be quietly kicked into touch. The vice-president of the EU Commission, Frans Timmermans, politely welcomed the display of "vision" in the proposals, but noted that most of the suggestions would require EU treaty change. He said simply: "We have to acknowledge that treaty change is not on the top of the political agenda now, in member states in particular." There are plenty of true believers in the European project who would see in the Verhofstadt proposals the start of a kind of counter-revolution against events which have dismayed them - including Brexit, the US election of Donald Trump and the strong opinion poll showing of insurgent parties in a number of European countries. But for now a more cautious and pragmatic approach will prevail - partly because there is a general sense in Strasbourg and Brussels that the European institutions will have enough on their plates negotiating Brexit, without kicking off a parallel process of structural reform which would also take years.

That takes us back to the idea that every crisis is an opportunity that shouldn't go to waste. There are, no doubt, those in Strasbourg who take that view - but it seems for the moment they are outweighed by those who feel that when you find yourself in the middle of a crisis - as they would see Brexit - the smartest course of action is to fix the crisis first and worry about the future later.

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