Buoyant Brussels: Brexit and Trump give the EU its mojo back
The mood in Brussels is upbeat as big challenges are recast as historic opportunities
French president Emmanuel Macron and German chancellor Angela Merkel during a ceremony in Berlin. Photograph: Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters/File Photo
There is a decidedly optimistic, batting-firmly-on-the-front-foot feel to Brussels and the Old Europe leaders of the EU these days. And a sense of unity of purpose – the uncertainty of Brexit and the British election notwithstanding.
Donald Trump, so abrasively opposed to so many of the EU’s core values, is a rallying point rather than a problem. As one Brussels observer put it, after some time in the doldrums, Europe has its mojo back.
“It looks as though European co-operation rests on a more stable foundation than it appeared a year ago after all,” Germany’s Frankfurter Allgemeine daily concluded.
Herman von Rompuy, a former president of the European Council, one-time Belgian prime minister, philosopher and renowned author of haiku poetry, articulated that upbeat mood at a meeting of the Institute for International and European Affairs in Brussels last week.
Brexit and Trump were actually driving a new sense of unity among the 27, he argued. The rise of anti-European populism had been successfully stemmed, or even put into retreat in the Dutch and French elections, and the euro-zone economy was now expanding successfully – robust growth in the first quarter of the year outstripped that of the United States and set the stage for a strong 2017, with an annualised rise in GDP in the 19 predicted at 1.8 per cent.
Macron has a sense of Brexit not as a disaster but as a historic opportunity to press ahead with an agenda of reform
The fair wind of the French election, he argued, had done more than see off Le Pen – the election of Macron, a committed Europhile, represented a reinvigoration of the Franco-German alliance, the motor that has traditionally driven the union forward. Between the two countries, he argued, they are capable of agreeing a template for a new Europe that is not just a Franco-German model but one reflecting their sensitivities to the north-south divisions and differing ambitions of all the union’s member states.
Crucially, Macron has a sense of Brexit, Financial Times columnist Gideon Rachman argued, not as a disaster but as a historic opportunity to press ahead with an agenda of reform unhindered by the single biggest traditional obstacle to integration: the UK. Macron wants much deeper EU integration on defence and monetary union and has even argued for a euro zone finance minister, an issue that divides the Berlin government. He now sees the opportunity, with Germany’s assistance, to take another step forward.
Martin Schulz, leader of the Social Democrats and Angela Merkel’s challenger in the forthcoming elections, posted on Twitter that, to reform Europe, Macron needs “a majority, and a new government in Germany”. And a leading German Green MP has warned Berlin in an interview with Die Welt against blocking ambitious reform .
But Merkel’s instincts, although cautious, are pushing her in the same direction as Macron. In the speech in which she suggested that the UK and the US were no longer reliable partners, the chancellor spoke strongly of the need for co-operation with France. A recent poll suggests that 94 per cent of Germans trust France, compared with 60 per cent who trust Britain, and just 21 per cent the US.
The union will pull through this time of crisis, Von Rompuy insists - strengthened
Asked about what many see as an imperative for further integration in response to Brexit, Von Rompuy is cautious. Although a pragmatic man of federalist inclinations, he insists nevertheless that European leaders must first acknowledge and address some of the social issues – such as migration – that fuelled the rise of populism, and that, above all, further integration must not be articulated as an end in itself.
If posed in terms of practical tasks, such as a necessary completion of elements of unfinished banking union, or co-operation on migration or against terrorism, he insists that a sceptical public will accept incremental, integrating change. That is supported by polling evidence, he says, which finds the public shying away from talk of overt integration. And that is very much the spirit of the reflection papers on the future of Europe that the European Commission has published in recent weeks.
In all these discussions in Brussels, unlike the past, is the echoing sound of silence from London, an already much diminished presence in this town and at ministerial councils.
The union will pull through this time of crisis, Von Rompuy insists. Strengthened. His own words, an old haiku, were used by an Irish diplomat to introduce him: “Life is sailing on the sea of time / but only the sea remains.”
An allegory for Brexit and the union’s future? “Ah, I didn’t remember that one,” he confessed. But like all poets, he refuses to explain. Never explain.