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Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Endgame for the EU, now that a Brexit is looming and the dividedness within the EU seems bigger than ever? Or perhaps the starting point of something new and better?!

The real fans of the European Union are currently going through a very rough time. In the prelude to a possible Brexit of the United Kingdom, the internal dividedness among the other members seems bigger than ever.

The ‘fission fungus’ is the refugee crisis, that puts the relations between the Southern and Western countries at one hand and the Eastern European countries at the other hand, on the edge.

The southern countries want to be partially freed from the influx of African and Middle East refugees that reach their shores on a daily basis, the western countries want to have a viable solution for the fair redivision of these refugees, in which everybody gets an appropriate share of the pain.

And the Eastern European countries?! Their statement is: ‘Not in our backyards! We don’t want to welcome refugees in our countries and we don’t want to be forced to accept Muslim people as new inhabitants.We are Catholic / Russian Orthodox countries and we are not prepared for giving shelter to people of other religions, as there is no infrastructure for their particular religion in our countries! And by the way, we are not willing to create such an infrastructure at all, so forget whatever you are planning about redivision of refugees!

The discussion between these three factions – Northwest, South and East – within the EU is executed in an increasingly shrill tone-of-voice and the willingness to listen to and consider each other’s arguments is rapidly diminishing.

These mounting differences led to the reinforcement of a pseudo EU-within-the-EU that had formed earlier: the so-called ‘Visegrad’ countries, consisting of Poland, the Czech Republic, Slowakia and Hungary.

These countries are all adamant about not accepting refugees from Africa and the Middle East; not even at gunpoint. On top of that these countries are willing to help with the installation of reinforced gates at the borders between the Balkan countries and Southern European countries (read: Greece), in order to stop the influx of refugees at the source. This leads to further division within the European Union and especially within the Schengen Zone, which now threatens to become a ‘container without any real contents’.

And at the same time PM David Cameron of the United Kingdom  is playing a game of ‘divide and conquer’ with the rest of the European Union, in order ‘to prevent a voluntary Brexit from the EU from happening’. Of course PM Cameron is willing to stay in the EU, but at conditions which are as favourable for his country as possible.

That this ‘status aparte’ for the United Kingdom could turn out bad for the rest of the Union and could put the London City in the driver’s seat, at the expense of Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam and Frankfurt? David Cameron could not care less!

Rik Winkel, the distinguished and well-informed EU reporter of Het Financieel Dagblad, made an inventory of the current situation within the EU. I print here the pertinent snips of his article:

The contrasts between the EU countries ran high in the prelude to the European Council at the end of this week. After a visit to Bucharest, EU Chairman Donald Tusk warned that the negotiations with the British were reaching a critical phase: ‘There is a realistical chance for a breach within the EU’.

At the same time the gap between the East and the West regarding the migration policy runs deeper and deeper. Officials from Germany, Luxemburg and current EU chair The Netherlands reacted annoyedly at the plans of the Visegrad countries to withdraw themselves from the ‘mandatory’ redivision of refugees and to help at the same time the Balkan countries with the close-down of their borders [with especially Greece – EL].

‘We strive for protection of our outer borders and repeat our negative stance with respect to a mechanism for automatical, permanent replacement [of refugees]’, was the challenging statement that was published by the Visegrad countries last Monday, after a summit in Prague.The redistribution policy of the EU is standing legislation. For Germany it is a litmus test for the current status of the European solidarity.

In Prague the four countries were making plans, together with the Bulgarian PM Boiko Borissov and the President of Macedonia, to help Macedonia with closing down its borders with EU member state Greece. According to the Czech PM Bohuslav Sobotka, ‘the EU policy failed’.

‘This kind of unilateral declarations and measures does not help’, according to Foreign Minister Bert Koenders in Brussels. ‘National measures are not the solution for the current conundrum’. And his German colleague Frank-Walter Steinmeier: ‘We cannot just redraw the borders of the EU, formally or informally. Greece is a EU member state!‘

Jean Asselborn from Luxemburg, Koenders’ predecessor as EU chairman, branded the Visegrad countries as an ‘association of renegades’ and reminded them that they themselves enjoyed much solidarity from the other European countries in the past.  

Also in the negotiations with the British the Visegrad countries lay down new obstacles. The main suppliers of cheap labour on the British market only want to approve of reductions on wage supplements and child allowances for foreign employees, when the current generation of labour migrants in the United Kingdom is lifted out of the target group.

In that case the positive impact of these agreements on the British social security framework is strongly reduced, which makes it harder for PM Cameron to present them to his grassroots as a positive negotiation result.

On Tuesday February 16, Cameron at first would have had a non-public meeting with the leaders of the fractions in the European Parliament, but he cancelled it unexpectedly due to ‘problems with his agenda’. Cameron would not have known in advance that Nigel Farage, the eurosceptical UKIP leader, was also part of the Council of Chairmen.

The last minute cancellation was received poorly in the Parliament. The PM would organize separate meetings with ‘friendlier’ fraction leaders after all. And as an exception to the usual habits, Martin Schulz would be present at the negotiations between the government leaders. The Parliament is much needed in a later stadium to approve of the designated agreements between the leaders. Cameron can only make his cuts in the social benefits for European migrants when the EU legislation has been altered first. Such a change requires approval of both the Ministers’ Council and the European Parliament.

In earlier articles I compared the EU with 28 frogs in a wheelbarrow, but it seems that I was mistaken.

At this moment the EU reminds me of 28 adolescent male lions during the mating season: all members are ‘in it to win it‘ and keep on looking for each other’s weak spots and points for the attack, in order to win the hearts of the available female lions (i.e. their grassroots). Some of these lions work together, while others go solo...  No lion, however, seems to think in the interests of the whole group. This behaviour puts the group as a whole under attack from the ‘elephants’ from Russia, China, Turkey and the United States or the ‘herds’ from the Middle East.

When this counterproductive and self-destructive behaviour of the EU members continues, this could very well be the end for the European Union as we know it.

At this moment I consider the chances that a Brexit can be averted (see the four gambles of David Cameron) by either David Cameron or the EU (i.e. Jean Claude Juncker) as quite dim. And even when this succeeds, the current British blackmail will have dire consequences for the internal cohesion of the EU.

Other countries will have learned from Cameron’s trick and will put it into practice when their domestic political situation requires that. To that respect, the current stance of the Visegrad countries is a tell-tale signal that other countries are also willing to forget the mutual interests within the EU and play the card of blackmail and/or internal division. When all member states continue on the current path, this could mean that the endgame for the EU has already started; a game that will not have a favourable outcome.

Yet, I have only one – increasingly dim – glimmer of hope about the future of the EU: when we will finally be able to leave this all behind us, I hope that the whole EU has learned the lesson that a combined future requires closer cooperation and more understanding for each other... not a looser connection and more independence within the EU. The EU is too valuable to treat it as a free-trade zone on steroids, existing of 28 selfish countries with only their own agenda to keep in mind. 

After this enormous crisis we must reinvent the EU and make it even stronger, better and more democratic than today. Otherwise the chaos and despair of the interbellum might loom again for the European Union and its inhabitants...

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