Is this the way European Policy is shaped by the people and for the people? The week, in which this editorial is written, is supposedly again one of the decisive weeks concerning the Brexit. Will we finally know by the end of this week when the Brexit will happen and under which conditions? I am sure that many people in Europe as well as in Britain are tired of the seemingly never ending story.
And more important, from 23 to 26 May there will be elections to the European Parliament. And as many insiders say, these will really be decisive, more decisive than any time before. Will there be a clear majority of those parties, who want to bring Europe forward, or will the anti-Europeans and populists make any constructive work in the future European Parliament impossible? Taking into account the centrifugal forces between members states, will the EU and with it the European integration process actually survive? If yes, will there be progress on a more social and sustainable as well as a more democratic Europe? Will Europe have a soul, as Jacques Delors asked or will it be reduced to a common market? These are crucial questions for the forthcoming elections, but the media focus mainly on the Brexit as the European theme. Do you know the “Spitzenkandidaten” for the European elections and what they stand for?
No doubt, the Brexit is an important issue, it has a bearing on all of the above mentioned issues and the integration process as a whole and, I am afraid, it will also have a bearing on the European elections. It is not about the question as to whether the Brits are still in for the elections or not. It is about the question as to whether the Brexit negotiations are a good example of how European politics should be handled. It is here where I have my biggest doubts and where I fear that the Brexit negotiations will have additional negative effects on the forthcoming elections. It is not that the Brexit negotiations are a positive example on how politicians deal responsibly with complex issues including the will of the people. They are a bad example in that blackmailing and playing with the people’s will are its main features.
Ever since Britain joined the EU and ever since Margret Thatcher’s “I want my money back”, British politicians tried to reduce the EU to a free market space and tried to negotiate special deals. In many cases, the EU became the scapegoat for what went wrong in British domestic affairs. David Cameron used the threat of a people’s vote to turn the screw even further in this regard. And people like Nigel Farage and Boris Johnston too easily misused the situation for their own populist interests. All of them are not in their posts of the time of the referendum any more. Neither David Cameron, neither Nigel Farage, neither Boris Johnston. They left the sinking ship.
What looked like an act of people’s participation, the referendum, was almost fraud. A complex issue was put to a vote in a “yes” or “no” alternative. As we can see from today, hardly any arguments of today’s debate were on the table those days, the consequences not evaluated. Instead the referendum preparations were fuelled with populist arguments, which contributed to the split in the British society, which until now makes it impossible to heal wounds and to envisage a way forward. Under these circumstances a second referendum, as desirable it might be today, taking into account new insights and the dreadful negotiation process, has little, if any, chance to bridge the divide.
Since the negative result of the referendum, the people’s voice was largely marginalised by the politicians, but the assumed people’s will was used or misused as an argument (or better: a threat to the other party) in the negotiations. And on top, in-transparencies, blackmailing and conditionalities became the main features of the process.
The EU made it clear from a start, that it would first negotiate the conditions of the Brexit, before entering into talk about future relations. Why? Why was this condition non-negotiable. Looking more and earlier into the future relationships might have helped the reception process in Britain. At times it looked that for the EU setting a threatening example for other member states considering to leave was more important than opening up a future with Britain outside the EU.
On the other hand, the British government wanted to negotiate behind closed doors. Only when the EU decided (not at least because of interventions of civil society) to make documents and positions public, the British government did so as well. Negotiations within Britain and serious parliament debates were postponed to the very last minute. This is nothing else than blackmailing, playing with time pressures and horror scenarios: if you don’t agree to my deal, the next step will be a hard Brexit with all its consequences. Discussions with opposition parties were started in the week before the Brexit actually was to take place and without any readiness to compromise. This is either a joke, an alibi consultation or an attempt to look for another scapegoat.
If this is the political culture, in which partners negotiate with each other wanting (or not) to develop a common future, no wonder that people have no trust in the future of Europe. And anti-Europeans and right-wing populists profit from it, on the streets and in the European Parliament elections. In the meantime, the people are taking things into their own hands, Puls of Europe and Fridays for Future are just but two Europe-wide examples.
It is high time, that we return to the broader European agenda, to the issues on which the future of Europe is decided. It is high time, that we return to a political culture which is committed to transparency, mutual respect, peoples’ participation and the logic of the better argument. In this, academies have an important role to play.