I write to you as a concerned Scottish, British, European human being. You appear to be the only European leader that this message can usefully be sent to.
We simply can not afford to let the demagogues have a monopoly on appealing to the hearts and minds of the people or be the only noisy focus of a public dialogue that is needed. The road to tyranny starts with demagoguery and we have walked that road before in Europe.
In the UK unfortunately, so far, our leaders have not been willing or able to manage the tensions between domestic short term political considerations and the need to find solutions for Europe to stay together and succeed. Whilst it must be admitted that we have a strong tradition of Euro-scepticism one must also ask whether the whole EU machinery is simply too complicated and out of control for anyone to get their hands around it?
In the UK we also suffer (at the moment) from a lack of true, strong principled pro-European leadership despite the strongly pro-European bias of the younger generations. This is evidenced in apparent short-term political opportunism of politicians like Boris Johnson during the Brexit referendum.
We now have Theresa May as our leader and, so far, she appears to be a sensible and careful leader that you could do a deal with for the people - we must trust that you are both working on this behind the scenes as a matter of utmost urgency (notwithstanding any public UK-EU posturing that is being maintained).
The world appears to be going through one of its periods of major transition — this gives rise to popular (and so far peaceful democratic) revolt.
Many people are unhappy with the status quo and feel left out by the speed of globalisation and technological disruption of existing service sectors that traditionally provided jobs. They also feel ignored (appreciating asset prices in things they do not own) and they feel let down by the political establishment — quite frankly these people are not stupid and nor are they wrong.
The people (not just the ones who share the same views) must now be listened to with respect and engaged with so as to believe that their interests are important and are being looked after (and not just the financial sector, billionaires, bankers, local politicians, MEP’s etc).
Likewise the older generation may be wise to something that is fundamentally broken in the EU political and fiscal machinery — we all feel it. Many pro-Europeans saw it as a necessary evil because it seemed too difficult to reform. It has just been a surprise to see how much people are willing to risk in order to vent their frustrations — perhaps we all suffered from a docile democracy. Now we have the chance to change.
That said, the Brexit vote should also be seen in the context of the wider anti-establishment mood sweeping through the West. In the UK we have much work to do to re-establish people’s trust in politics - we may also be nearing the end of the usefulness of representative democracy as it has been practiced. Technology has disrupted every other sector — it must now disrupt the democratic infrastructure and we must move to a much more participatory democracy.
If moderate, liberal and pro-European politicians do not engage with the genuinely held concerns of large numbers of people then demagogues will of course step forward to gather their votes— as you know ‘nature abhors a vacuum’.
The decision of the people of the United Kingdom to leave the European Union in the EU referendum of 23 June 2016 came as a surprise to many in the UK and the world.
The UK’s EU referendum could not have come at a worse time given the mood of the (wo)man in the street and the risk of the referendum becoming a wider protest vote against the current economy and the political establishment in the UK and the EU.
Since that time we have seen the pound (GBP) come under persistent selling pressure as the markets fret about the potential loss of common market rights for the UK — especially given the complete lack of clarity from the UK political establishment about what happens next. The manner of the referendum (no one considered what would happen if the people voted to leave) showed all too well how patronising and lacking in real dialogue the political relationship with the people has become in the UK (and elsewhere).
Despite the many economic benefits of access to the European common market, the increasing tension between certain perceived core UK national interests and the continued drive for a closer European Union finally resulted in the rejection of the European Union project by the UK. The UK concerns centred around immigration, the primacy of European law over British law, a democratic deficit in European politics and more generally concern about the destination the EU project is heading in — closer Union (at a time when we need less EU and more European collaboration).
We have since seen the UK political establishment struggle to find a way forward that gives effect to the desires of the UK people in the context of a poorly constructed referendum process. A process that provided no clarity on what type of Europe the people of the UK can remain in, whilst moving away from the disliked architecture of the European Union.
Whilst uncertainty is rightly regarded as an enemy to most long-term decisions, rushing into a certain loss of common market rights appears to be distinctly against the interest of the UK and the EU. Between a rock and a hard place the UK now waits and must plan its next move — seeking to balance common market rights with curtailment of one of the four fundamental EU freedoms. What happens next could turn this into a positive experience for Europe.
It seems perverse that the EU position remains that the UK must trigger an EU exit under Article 50 to have the necessary and long deferred debate and discussion about how Europe can and should work — there is more at stake for Europe (and not just the UK) than tactical economic and political positioning or the maintenance of the current EU architecture. A genuine public debate and resulting EU reform may even negate the need for such withdrawal by the UK (and possibly others later too if the UK goes). Perhaps it is too late to prevent the UK leaving the EU - but efforts must be exhausted to keep the EEA together if we are to keep the spirit of European goodwill and collaboration necessary for the younger generations to carry forward the European project.
The rejection of the EU comes at a time when the EU political and fiscal structures appear to be failing and there is a concern that the EU is not doing enough to secure an obviously better economic future for many citizens of the EU. This crisis is a potential opportunity.
This is all taking place within an apparent worldwide backlash against the negative aspects of globalisation, concern about significant differences in treatment in law and tax of the powerful and wealthy from ‘normal’ people, a loss of trust in long-standing institutions (including the political establishment and major banks) and a pervading suspicion that the common people are facing a future with the burdens of ‘austerity’ measures when things go wrong but less expected proportionate share of any increase in aggregate income and wealth. Are they really so stupid to suspect this? It would seem not.
The European common market vs the EU political establishment
As you know a rejection of the EU political structures and establishment is by no means a rejection of the European common market. They are not the same and political leaders must not make them the same lest things get much worse in Europe.
In the current fragile economic climate, a loss of the economic advantages of Europe seems a very high price for all Europeans to pay because of the UK’s rejection of the EU political establishment. Many people are hopeful a middle-ground between the current EU political system and the need for a functioning European common market can be found. Supporting this hope is the obvious conclusion that it is in the best interests of all within Europe.
For those who do not know the difference between the common market and the EU: The European Economic Area (EEA) includes all EU members (28 States plus additional territories such as Gibraltar) in addition to three EFTA countries, being Iceland, Norway and Lichtenstein. It is home to over 500 million people and represents the largest common market in the world. The European common market or internal market, is the economic union that was put in place by the European Communities and then by the European Union. Goods, services, capital and people are supposed to circulate freely (known as the “four freedoms’) until there is no difference between the European market and the national markets of the member states of the EU.
The EEA is governed by the ‘EEA agreement’ that is significantly more limited than EU membership. The EEA Agreement applies to the territories of the EU, in addition to Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway. As you are aware, the EEA agreement differs from EU membership in that it does not include some core EU components such as: the EU Customs Union, International Trade agreements with third countries (in World Trade Organisation negotiations, the Common Agricultural Policy, the Common Fisheries Policy, Monetary Union — Euro membership, Justice & Home Affairs, Co-ordinated taxation in certain fields & Common Foreign and Security Policy.
It remains to be seen whether the UK will become an EFTA member and whether the EEA Agreement is, or can be, sufficiently flexible to enable the UK to have continued access to the common market with some allowance made for a degree of restriction on the four fundamental freedoms. Personally, I do not wish to see immigrants become the easy target of public frustration but we must not just preach to the converted nor can we simply label such views as abhorrent and therefore not worth addressing. I am largely insulated from the impact of the macro-changes the world is going through (in fact as a European e-commerce lawyer I am a beneficiary), but my perspective is just one of many. We must address the concerns of the many.
“Absolute freedom mocks at justice. Absolute justice denies freedom. To be fruitful, the two ideas must find their limits in each other.”
Alternatively, like Switzerland, the UK may seek a more bespoke relationship allowing partial access to the common market outside of the EEA Agreement — yet every option still begs the question about the degree of latitude that would be permitted the UK (and others that reject the EU architecture) in respect of the four fundamental freedoms. A new law-making process for the whole of the EEA — made between EU and EFTA members — is also required to ensure consent and consensus.
Other options no doubt exist but they will require a similar degree of respectful concession in negotiation by all. We must hope pragmatism rather than dogmatism wins the day given the stakes involved for all.
In addition, it must be noted, that the UK may be the first EU Member State to break ranks and reject the EU project — but it is unlikely to be the last if the obvious political and structural defects and deficits of the EU are not addressed.
A democratic deficit?
Over the next 12 months we are likely to see the EU come under increased and intense pressure to reform or face the risk of a more catastrophic failure. We have a referendum in Italy and elections in the Netherlands, Germany and France that are likely to severely test the people’s love of the current EU establishment and structures. It is unlikely that a bureaucratic, remote and overly complicated EU establishment will do well in the current political climate, especially with Commissioners like Jean-Claude Juncker representing the EU (which David Cameron did warn the EU about).
This changing backdrop will dictate the terms under which the EU will negotiate with the UK, and at the moment it appears that no negotiation will take place until Article 50 is triggered by the UK. The current EU interpretation of the four freedoms appears to be a European ‘sacred cow’.
Unless other EU members threaten to trigger Article 50 themselves, it seems unlikely (based on the EU’s current stance and Switzerland’s recent experience) that the UK will be able to secure access to the common market whilst also maintaining some meaningful sovereignty (e.g. over UK immigration controls) that limit the four freedoms in a meaningful way.
Europe is faced with a level of legal, political and economic uncertainty for the EU and the UK not seen for generations. We can wish it were otherwise and we must hope that strong pragmatic pro-European leaders step forward in the UK and the continent to work on solutions that mitigate national populist revolt.
Yet, willingness to compromise and adapt can keep us all together and keep the European dream alive for another day.
Unless these various tensions are resolved with practical politics rather than dogma and theory, the current EU trajectory will ultimately result in severe damage to the UK and the potential destruction of the EU. Failure to find pragmatic compromises will likely lead to a much more severe degradation of all four freedoms for all in Europe and so must be avoided — the current EU structure was long ready for reform so let’s reform before risking ruin.
“What fool is not so wise, to lose an oath to win a paradise”
It is time to re-assess whether the EU establishment works and is useful for the people. We can not afford to label people seeking such critical review as anti-European nor can we afford a self-satisfied, disrespectful and indulgent label for ‘Brexit’ (and ‘Trump’) voters as bigots, racists and stupid.
I for one am proudly pro-European (the 20th century was a great teacher) and looking at the current geo-political realities we clearly need Europe to continue to hold together. However, absent major reform, I simply can not see why anyone would want to be part of the EU as it is currently structured and operated — whilst all continue to see many great benefits in the European common market (and that has been the carrot to put up with the EU defects for so long). Not much more time is left it seems.
I do not believe that the four freedoms are currently upheld consistently in practice in Europe — let’s not sacrifice togetherness at the altar of theoretical absolutism. The only source of knowledge is experience, and experience is telling us that the European project is broken and needs a reboot.
The EU establishment understandably feels threatened, but reform is necessary to allow the building of consensus. Honest work is needed rectify the people’s perception that Brussels is an expensive complicated hierarchy not subject to democratic pressure. From my experience the EU is not sufficiently interested in fostering ‘Europeanness’ in the people (perhaps leaders of each Member State are also nervous of the same). For the current EU to survive in an active democracy the EU politicians must at least be thinking and working on what being European means to and for the people. A remote fiscal, legal and political architecture negotiated far away from people and managed by bureaucrats (however well intentioned) is simply not going to survive popular review and revolt.
The choice is obvious and stark — the current EU architecture and relations with the people needs major reformation or the whole European project is at risk.
The problems facing the EU are personified by senior Commissioners (not elected by the people) patronising the British people prior to the Referendum and publicly patronising American leaders too. Enough! — it can not be only national politicians that must resign/lose their positions for failure to accurately gauge public opinion and engage with people with humility and respect.
It is time for those with power to show the British and other European people that this attitude of the EU will stop. These officials are supposed to represent and look after the people of Europe and not just their institution, ego and status. Showing people that there are consequences for failing to connect to the democratic body is one small but important change that we need to make if we are to re-engage people with all that is good and positive about the Europe project. Their continuation in high office highlights and reinforces the perceived democratic deficit.
The people who have driven the European project forward have so much to be proud. The distance travelled from 1945 to today can not be measured just by the short amount of time elapsed. This unprecedented project of collaboration by such a diverse group of cultures and nations will of course continue. Perhaps we now must take one step back if we are to to take two steps forward (and before things get much worse).
We have moved so far and so fast with the European project that a period of reflection and consolidation is needed if we wish to safely continue with a stronger, surer, collaborative Europe made up of diverse people with strong national identities.
You are the only obvious European leader principled and powerful to try to reconcile these various national and European tensions — please keep trying to solve these problems on behalf of your voters and the rest of us in Europe (and in responding to this crisis by opening up to and really engaging with the people you can secure your ability to continue the European project). We are all joined together in our self-interest in the success or failure of the European project — whatever the public rhetoric.
You have a German mandate but a responsibility that stretches much further than the boundaries of Germany. At times it must feel like a heavy burden, but what an honour and opportunity it presents if you will reach out and connect to the people of Europe directly, having faith in our collective humanity and good sense whilst showing sensitivity to our worries and fears.
The UK and the silent majority across Europe will support you if you can show that someone in power is listening to these genuine concerns and is willing to make the difficult decisions needed to start to bring people of different outlooks and ages together again.
With utmost respect and best wishes to you.
A concerned fellow European,
Ps: I will let the great Goethe have the last word….