Sean Moncrieff: Brexit is steadily corroding the EU from the inside
Europe depicts Brexit as a British midlife crisis unconnected to any systemic EU problem
Britain’s prime minister Theresa May: how will the EU act when it comes to securing a trade deal with a country that is still the fifth largest economy in the world? Photograph: EPA
Here comes another tortuous year of Brexit, and it will be tiresome to read about. So I’m getting in early. The frothing anti-EU British press will depict Brussels as akin to the evil empire in Star Wars. Nigel Farage is Luke Skywalker. Boris Johnson is, of course, a Wookie.
And on the other side there will again be tonnes of think pieces about the silly British and how they voted for the political equivalent of magic beans. But what a lot of these attempts at schadenfreude ignore is the damage being inflicted on the European Union itself.
People voted for Brexit for a multiplicity of reasons, some of them farcical but some of them justified. Many British people – along with many people across the continent – feel that “Europe” is a frosty political behemoth: remote, overly bureaucratic, indifferent or unaware of the feelings and needs of its citizens. Europe sticks up for its smaller members only when it suits Brussels. We’ll come back to that.
The success of the Brexit campaign gave succour to this view – and it is steadily corroding the EU from the inside. Yet Europe seems unwilling or unable to acknowledge this, preferring to depict Brexit as the British having some sort of midlife crisis completely unconnected to any systemic problems in the EU. Brussels is accused of being remote and indifferent; Brussels’ reaction to this is indifferent and remote.
The nothing-to-see-here routine will prove impossible to sustain in 2018. While in these islands we obsessed about the future relative density of the border, the European Commission took the unprecedented step of threatening to strip Poland of voting rights within the EU. Since its election in 2015, Poland’s ruling party, the unfortunately-acronymed PiS, has been chipping away at democratic checks and balances, the latest being a decision to hand over judicial appointments to the ruling party.
Predictably, the Polish government is depicting this as an example of Europe meddling with national sovereignty, a view enthusiastically supported by Hungary, where the prime minister Viktor Orban’s favourite speech theme is protecting “Christian culture” from the Muslim hordes. The population of Hungary is 10 million; 5,000 of them are Muslim.
Orban has promised he will block any attempt to strip Poland’s voting rights (it requires a unanimous vote) and will probably be backed by the Czech Republic, where the government there is making similar nationalistic squeaks. Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic are being sued by the EU for failing to take in their agreed quota of refugees, about 8,000 between the three of them. Hungary and Poland haven’t taken in any. The Czech Republic has taken just 12.
These are profound problems, not just for refugees, but for the future of legal agreements within the EU, of the previously agreed rules about how EU democracies should operate. With such massive issues at stake, with the head-melting complications of Brexit to sort out, we’ll see how much our concerns about the border continue to feature.
Membership of the European Union has been beneficial to Ireland. Our planet is undergoing massive economic and geopolitical change, and it’s impossible to predict what the outcome of that will be. So it’s probably best to stay inside the big club. But let’s not fool ourselves: it suited Europe last year to back Leo Varadkar if it meant sticking it to the Brits, but how will it act when it comes to securing a trade deal with a country that is still the fifth largest economy in the world? When the EU is worried about its own survival? In a couple of years, we may find Brussels being remote and indifferent to us too.