Back in December 2015, the board of trustees of Stonewall commissioned a series of essays, each of 1000 words, about the political context in which the charity will operate in the next 25 years. I was asked to the Europe essay in this series. I submitted the essay on 8 January 2016, so just under 6 months before the Brexit referendum as it turned out, but actually before the date of the referendum was actually set.
I stumbled across the essay again last week and asked Stonewall if now, with hindsight, I could publish the piece here. Stonewall was fine with that, so here, complete and unedited, is that essay from January 2016. I am also struck now by how making predictions that work even two years ahead is hard, let alone the twety five that Stonewall requwsted.
Anyway, make what you will of my ability (or not) to predict what happened!
Britain, the European Union, and European Politics in 2025
Predicting the future of Britain’s relationship with the European Union, and indeed the very nature of the European Union and its Member States is a complex task these days. For the European Union, buffeted by multiple threats and challenges, does not look in a healthy state right now, while its Member States have a slew of their own issues to confront – some external, some self-inflicted.
The main short term self-inflicted challenge for the UK is the EU referendum, to be held by the end of 2017. A combination of Britain’s ongoing tribulations about its place in Europe, and – more importantly – David Cameron’s weakness vis à vis his backbenchers and inability to stop his party “banging on about Europe” have brought us here.
At the time of writing, a referendum in the second half of 2016, and a narrow vote to Remain in the EU, looks to be the more likely outcome. However as negotiations drag on in Brussels, so the danger the timetable slips, and also (as referendum theory would suggest) the chances of a Leave vote grow.
Polls in the second half of 2015 have consistently shown narrow leads for the Remain side, and if this proves to be the outcome, relations between the UK and the EU would return to a normal level of everyday hostility post-referendum. Britain would still be seen within the EU institutions as the uneasy partner, the one who is only half-in on any crucial policies, but importantly the threat of the UK departing would – for the time being – have lifted. Do not expect a Remain vote to in any way heal UK-EU relations, not least as the Remain camp’s messaging sounds almost as hostile and nationalistic as Leave’s, and EU-sceptics within the Conservative party are not likely to fall silent.
A victory for Leave would throw both the UK and, to a lesser extent the EU, into a state of crisis. Crucial questions about the UK’s relationship with the EU when outside will not have been answered prior to the referendum (because no-one trusts Leave on this, and neither Cameron nor Labour want to confront themselves with this question), and working out how a UK outside the EU will work will dog the government for the two years it will take to negotiate an exit. This process will become all-consuming – managing this and the potential economic fall out from the Leave vote will take all the government’s time and effort. If Cameron campaigns for Remain and loses then he is a dead man walking, and a Leave vote will almost certainly trigger a further Scottish independence vote.
On the EU side, a Leave vote would add to the EU’s mounting list of crises. Britain leaving would be seen as an irritation, and may provoke the idea to hold similar votes elsewhere, but the economic cost of leaving for Eurozone, or Central and Eastern European, Countries would be higher than for the UK, meaning few, if any, would dare even hold referendums. The EU would be likely to paint a Leave vote as British exceptionalism, and try to move on.
Meanwhile the Eurozone crisis and refugee crisis have shone a light on a number of divisions within the European Union – north vs. south (Greece vs. Germany on the Euro), east vs. west (Hungary + Poland vs. Germany + Sweden on refugees), and Euro vs. non-Euro countries (ongoing questions about economic governance of the Eurozone that concern only them). Meanwhile some national political developments reveal other divides (Poland’s 2015 election pitted rural, poor voters against richer, urban voters, while Slovenia’s referendum on equal marriage shows even the progress of human rights is patchy).
Across Europe the centre of the political spectrum is struggling against upstart political forces of the populist left (Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain) and the right (Front National in France, Dansk Folkeparti in Denmark, Fidesz in Hungary). This poses a dual challenge to the traditional parties – it makes forming coalition governments harder (sometimes forcing grand coalitions to be formed, which further leads to the weakening of the centre), and it draws traditional parties towards populist positions (see Valls and Hollande after the Paris terror attacks). The European Union’s ponderous response to creeping authoritarianism in Hungary and Poland will leave others thinking they can chance it without repercussion. Conversely citizen protests against repression of the media in Warsaw, and the civic and voluntary response to the refugee crisis in Germany and elsewhere are grounds for optimism – the people can be more tolerant and caring than their governments.
The European Union institutions will continue their narrow focus on economic questions as a way to try to gain a little legitimacy in the eyes of Europe’s people who, by now, can largely be categorised as jaundiced and politico-sceptic more than they are explicitly EU-sceptic (the Commission’s Eurobarometer generally shows national politicians are trusted even less than EU ones). Hence the ongoing agenda for “jobs & growth” and “better regulation” are the European Commission’s attempt to relieve the EU from the financial and economic crisis. However with the refugee crisis endangering the future of the Schengen border free zone (ending it would have an economic as well as a civic impact), states still heavily indebted due to banking bailouts, and ageing populations and lack of investment in the digital transition holding economies back, trying to return Europe’s economies to good health is going to be an uphill struggle. Meanwhile the banking system remains unreformed, housing bubbles are emerging again in some of Europe’s strongest cities, and the problems of the Eurozone and bailouts are only on temporary hold.
Meanwhile the European Union’s role in the world remains limited. The EU’s major powers – France, the UK and Germany – are too small to individually solve the foreign policy challenges posed by Russia, the Middle East and North Africa on their own, but are simultaneously too self conscious to genuinely develop a common EU Foreign Policy.
In short: there are few grounds for optimism over the next decade – when it comes to the UK’s relationship with the European Union, other Member States’ relationships with each other and with the EU, and the EU institutions’ ability to confront multiple challenges.
1031 words, excl. title and biography.
References / statistics can be provided on request.