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The Real Threats to the EU

The European Union must address a slew of challenges – from immigration to eurozone reform – that risk causing systemic problems lethal to the bloc. Given this, sensible leaders can be forgiven for politely sending the UK on its way, and focusing their attention on threats to the EU’s long-term cohesion and fundamental values.

LONDON – In the United Kingdom, Brexit looms large, with everyone from government ministers to tabloid newspapers frothing daily about the deal that will be struck with the European Union and the effects that it will have. But the EU faces too many pressing challenges to be obsessing about Britain.

The UK’s concern is understandable: evidence is mounting of the likely damage a departure from the single market and customs union will do to the UK economy. According to new research from the Centre for European Reform, the UK economy is already 2.1% smaller than it would have been had voters chosen to remain. The hit to public finances totals £440 million ($579 million) per week.

The lack of information about how Brexit will play out has businesses worried. The CEO of Siemens UK, Jürgen Maier, recently urged British leaders to clarify how trade with the EU will work, urging them to ensure that the country remains in the customs union. Airbus has warned that a “no deal” outcome would force it to reassess its long-term position in the country, putting thousands of British jobs at risk. BMW has affirmed its commitment to remaining in the UK, but warned that costs could rise.

Such warnings have not been received kindly by the Brexiteers. Britain’s health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, has called them “completely inappropriate,” insisting that they “undermine” Prime Minister Theresa May. But May is doing a fine job of undermining herself: her claim that a “Brexit dividend” will partly fund increases in spending on the National Health Service has been widely condemned as a lie.

But what does the EU think of all of this? It seems that EU leaders have accepted that we British have taken leave of our senses, and there is not much they can do about it. They certainly are not going to undermine their own successful, law-based economic model to do us a favor. Brexit will hurt us a lot more than it will hurt the EU.

What could hurt the EU – indeed, threaten its very fabric – is a slew of other challenges, beginning with US President Donald Trump’s threats to the health and even survival of the transatlantic alliance, a key pillar of the post-World War II global order. Trump plainly prefers dictators to democrats, and lacks any respect for his allies. His praise for North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at their summit in Singapore stood in jarring contrast to his criticism of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau after the G7 summit in Quebec.

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One of Trump’s most problematic stances relates to trade. He has determined, based on a profound misunderstanding of how trade works, that it pits the United States against the world. Rather than collaborating with Europe and Japan and strengthening the World Trade Organization to counter China’s mercantilism, he has decided to go it alone, attacking even his closest allies in what threatens to escalate into a full-blown trade war that will hurt everyone, not least American industry and consumers.

Another pressing challenge facing Europe is immigration. Earlier this year, Trump approved a “zero-tolerance” immigration policy that would not only prosecute all adults – even asylum-seekers – illegally crossing the border, but also take their children away to be detained separately (although he has since issued an executive order to reverse the separation of families). It is an example that no civilized country should so much as consider copying. Yet some in Europe seem to believe that erecting barbed-wire fences along borders (Hungary) or closing ports to ships full of refugees (Italy and Malta) is justified.

Such behavior certainly gets a Trumpian nod of approval. Indeed, right-wing populists in Europe are virtually guaranteed a pat on the back and a few words of encouragement from Trump’s former chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, and even some US ambassadors.

European democrats with a civilized view of governance, meanwhile, are punished. What did Germany do to deserve Richard Grenell – who has asserted his desire to “empower other conservatives” – as its ambassador from the US? The answer, it seems, is that its centrist chancellor, Angela Merkel, has pushed back against Trump.

Yet draining the poison from Europe will require a lot more than scolding the US and praying for Trump’s early departure. In fact, some EU leaders’ approaches to issues like immigration are threatening to create systemic problems that will endure long after Trump has returned to a life of golf courses and bankruptcy courts. Sensible European leaders can be forgiven for politely sending the UK on its way, so that they can focus their attention on threats to their long-term cohesion and fundamental values.

The EU has always prided itself on being a community of values that protects minorities and has welcomed the poor and downtrodden. The EU is, after all, composed of minorities, and it has known its share of poverty and hardship.

But what values could moderate democrats like Merkel, France’s Emmanuel Macron, and the Netherlands’ Mark Rutte possibly share with the right-wing political bosses in Hungary, Poland, Italy, and even Austria? Sebastian Kurz, Austria’s tiresome young chancellor, is actively seeking to mobilize opposition to Merkel, even though her attitude toward refugees saved Austria from a deluge of asylum seekers.

Good sense and experience should tell us that selfish sloganeering, violating the rule of law, and dismissing international commitments is not a recipe for good policy. Macron is right to argue that Viktor Orbán’s Hungary and Jarosław Kaczynski’s Poland should no longer be allowed to pick the pockets of their richer European partners, while trampling over EU values.

The EU must confront the challenges ahead with cohesive, collaborative policies that combine effectiveness with basic human decency. On migration, for example, it must work as one to strengthen its own borders, while helping, through development assistance and security cooperation, the countries from which people are fleeing. With more stability and open markets, they will be able to export their products, rather than their citizens.

As for Britain, we made our bed; now we must endure our nightmares in it.

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