RESULT of the British referendum on membership of the European Union did not augur well for either side. The fabric of the much-vaunted ‘unity’ of Europe appeared once again to be frayed at the edges. Putting aside the pros and cons of BREXIT itself, what follows is a modest attempt to assay the future prospects of the much-vaunted dream of a ‘United States of Europe’. An over-the-shoulder look at the course of recent history may be in order. The Turkish quest for membership for one brought to the fore one of the evident fissures in the façade of the European Union itself. Despite the frenetic efforts to spruce up the image of unity, the dream of a ‘United States of Europe’ has appeared as distant as ever. Of late, genuine fears have been evident in certain quarters that Europe might be heading back to the days when it was in a state of sixes and sevens. These fears now appear to have been accentuated by the messy BREXIT issue.
Starting with the epoch when the late French president Charles de Gaulle (“Le Grand Charles”) slammed the door in the face of the British application to join the European Common Market (ECM), Europe has never quite managed to achieve a degree of understanding that would afford it, at least, a façade of unity. The European Union, which not so very long ago was looking forward to a comparatively bright future, now gives the appearance of having stepped over a bed of thorns.
Former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair – in his school-boyish enthusiasm to follow the United States and President George W. Bush – had already led Britain far afield from the European mainstream, thus creating a schism that would not prove easy to mend. This was followed by the epoch when France and Germany took such a resolute defiant stand against the US-British military adventure in Iraq that Europe, to all appearance, appeared sheared right down the middle. The passage of time did have an emollient effect of sorts and things appeared less severe for a time. But given the current shock, European unity, such as it was, is bound to take a fresh battering.
Looking further back at EU history, the addition of ten new members in May 2004 (thus ‘uniting’ Western and Central Europe into a single market of 450 million people) had given rise to general expectation that the half-century of division of the continent in two in the wake of the Cold War would finally come to an end. As Romano Prodi, the then president of the European Commission, enthusiastically put it at the time, “Accession of ten new member states will bring an end to the divisions in Europe. For the first time in history, Europe will become one because unification is the free will of its people”. By hindsight, one finds that this was perhaps nothing more than an idealistic vision. The ideal of a united Europe did look good on paper for a while. What did not appear realistic, though, was the expectation that this paper image could be smoothly transcribed on to the ground. The hurdles strewn across the path of Europe were daunting. For one thing, the economic disparities among the member states alone would have been sufficient to destroy any prospects of economic integration.
More glaring was the matter of growing tension that was inevitable between the established ‘European Union’ and the impoverished former Soviet republics that it now shared such a long border with. Some economic disparities were stark, e.g. Belarus – population ten million – had an average per capita output of $1,200; Ukraine – population fifty million – boasted of an annual economic output of around $800 per person. These were in stark contrast to European Union’s per capita average of around $22,000. The new members of the European Union as well as new aspirants – Turkey among them – have had ample reason to feel nervous. A Europe moving towards its conservative past is a Europe that will reopen old wounds. This is the one scenario that those who wish Europe well would hate to be replayed. Friends would wish instead to see Europe rise as not only an economic giant but also as a rational grouping that could act as a stabilizing factor in a world turned on its head by America’s (and NATO’s?) precipitate War on Terror. Let it not be forgotten that the European Union was the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012!
Brexit has apparently dealt a body blow to the once envisaged unity of EU. It will require a Herculean effort at recovery to bring the ship of EU to an even keel. Europe, all in all, may once again be on the threshold of a future at sixes and sevens. Once within striking distance of an historic unity; even – it may be added – on the verge of eminence, Europe appears more than ever to have lost its foothold. Mundane issues, such as fears of immigration; competition for scarce jobs and the like, should have been anticipated betimes before following the sole superpower blind- folded into its Middle-East (mis)adventure. The fact that this was not done clearly points to the maxim that self-flagellation at this stage would hardly suffice as an efficacious remedy. The struggle for European unity has once again been relegated to the proverbial square one! On the other hand, perhaps the vision of the late President de Gaulle of a united Europe sans the British Isles wasn’t so much off the mark after all!
— The writer is a former ambassador and former assistant secretary general of OIC.