Let us imagine that, come the eleventh hour, a Brexit trade deal is announced tomorrow night.
Leaving aside the feelings of diehard Remainers who will never accept our departure from the European Union, and of diehard Brexiteers who will bemoan a ‘sellout’, it’s fair to say a mood of relief would sweep Britain.
Wearied by the ‘stop-start’ negotiations, threats and counter-threats, the game-playing and brinkmanship, most of us want a resolution and businesses want certainty so that as a nation we can move forward and start to repair the economic damage of the pandemic.
No 10 will present the deal as a triumph. As indeed will Brussels, with Eurocrats congratulating themselves on having pushed Boris Johnson to the limit.
Let us imagine that, come the eleventh hour, a Brexit trade deal is announced tomorrow night
But in my view — and whatever the details of a deal (if there is one) turn out to be — the celebrations of Macron, Merkel, von der Leyen & Co will be premature, to say the least.
For weeks now, the focus on both sides of the Channel has been on what a deal or no deal would mean for Britain.
The assumption is that, whatever the outcome, the EU will maintain its progress and prosperity without us.
According to this myopic narrative, we are the ones facing a storm as we strike out alone, while the EU, united and purposeful, sails on serenely.
In fact, nothing could be farther from the truth.
But in my view — and whatever the details of a deal (if there is one) turn out to be — the celebrations of Macron, Merkel, von der Leyen & Co will be premature, to say the least. Pictured left to right: President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Council President Charles Michel
With or without a deal, the EU faces monumental problems on every front, from economic sclerosis and population decline to growing divisions between its 27 members.
Papering over the tensions between the richer core states — France, Germany and the Netherlands — and Greece and Italy, let alone those taking root among the poorer new members from the old Eastern bloc, is becoming ever harder.
Since 2016, hostility toward Brexit has promoted a kind of shallow unity across the union. But once Britain is no longer Brussels’ scapegoat, the EU will be starkly confronted by its own chronic failings.
The European project is in crisis — both broke and woke, if you like. Its entire model of governance is outdated and ill-suited to the challenges of the 21st century.
That is a fact too often ignored in Britain because of our navel-gazing tendencies around Brexit, currently reflected in panicky reports of a no-deal scenario amid talk of looming food shortages, bottlenecks at ports and British passport-holders being turned away at European border points.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen welcomes Prime Minister Boris Johnson prior to a meeting at EU headquarters in Brussels on Wednesday
With perverse glee, Remainers are also using the Covid crisis — which is largely responsible for the port problems — to anoint us the ‘sick man of Europe’ once more.
Yet such sneers overlook the fact that Belgium, home of the European Commission, has the highest per capita death toll from Covid-19 in the world. And with its federal constitution, multilingual make-up and paralysed decision-making process, Belgium is the EU in microcosm.
Make no mistake, the sprawling Brussels empire is in decline, weakened by its ideology and bureaucracy.
Decades ago, the EU had a power of attraction. In the Sixties and early Seventies, successive British prime ministers saw joining the Common Market as the panacea for our own economic difficulties.
In 1973, Edward Heath agreed to whatever Brussels asked. The French negotiators thought it a great joke to ask for an island nation’s fisheries and couldn’t believe their luck when they were handed them.
But now, as the EU slides into stagnation and fractures deepen, Europe’s condescension towards Britain has been replaced by a determination to punish us for our effrontery in daring to leave.
In 1973, Edward Heath agreed to whatever Brussels asked. The French negotiators thought it a great joke to ask for an island nation’s fisheries and couldn’t believe their luck when they were handed them. Pictured: French President Emmanuel Macron during negotiations on Friday
Wilful intransigence in the Brexit negotiations is also, of course, part of the Brussels campaign to deter other members from a similar move. Similarly, Malta, Poland and Hungary have been threated with financial consequences — such as withholding Covid recovery aid — if they do not come into line with EU diktats on political, judicial and free speech issues.
Yet this impulse to penalise is not the action of a secure, flourishing organisation. On the contrary, it is the behaviour of a desperate institution, racked by weaknesses.
At the heart of the EU’s unfolding nightmare is the very nature of its mission, namely to achieve ‘ever closer union’ through political integration.
Built on the noble wish to prevent another European war, this objective has turned into a wrecking ball against national democracies and economies.
The dogma of federal unity led to the creation of the single currency, which fuelled unemployment and debt by robbing member states of the ability to fix their fiscal policies and interest rates according to their own needs.
The EU is now lecturing Britain about observing its ‘rules’. But it rode roughshod over those same rules to facilitate the inclusion of troubled, indebted Greece in the Eurozone, with disastrous consequences.
Similarly, the obsession with free movement is driven by the determination to create a new concept of European citizenship by weakening national identities. That quest backfired, too.
Mass migration from the Mediterranean and Eastern Europe to member countries with better prospects has caused social upheaval, strains on welfare and damage to individual economies.
Think of what the loss of so many young, working-age people has meant for their home countries.
Quite apart from the stress imposed on family life and the loss of earnings and tax revenues, many EU member states face ageing populations and falling birth rates.
Moreover, the sense that we had lost control of our borders undoubtedly played a crucial part in Brexit. Today, similar fears are being played out over Germany’s insistence that member states should accept their share of immigrant ‘quotas’.
Lack of flexibility is another consequence of the Brussels fixation with unity.
The EU remains stuck with the management model and revenue-raising of the late 1950s, when there were just six founding members of what was then called the EEC. It is utterly unsuited to consisting of 27 members in the 21st century.
The fact that it took the EU six months to agree an ‘emergency’ Covid budget shows how slow Europe has become.
Say what you like about Whitehall’s handling of coronavirus, but Chancellor Rishi Sunak was able to respond to each new challenge as it happened, not after months of conference calls with 27 other finance ministers. That Britain became the first nation in the world to start mass immunisation with a Covid vaccine was, according to Health Secretary Matt Hancock, a direct result of our regulatory authorities being able to fast-track the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine rather than wait for European approval.
What makes the EU’s outdated, bureaucratic stance even worse is that its finances are about to take a tremendous hit from Brexit, with the Commission losing about a fifth of the annual budget.
That means citizens in the richer countries of Western Europe will face pressure to increase their payments. If Britain’s huge contribution was a stimulus to Brexit voters, we should remember that the Germans and the Dutch as individuals pay a subscription to the EU big enough to buy each of them annual membership of an exclusive London club. Cranking up financial demands will only increase tensions.
Inflexibility and ideology have also inhibited the EU on the global stage. When the European project was first conceived, the world was divided by the Iron Curtain between free-market capitalism and dictatorial communism.
Western Europe and North America were the powerhouses of the global economy. Japan’s rise was a first warning of the re-emergence of Asia, from tiger economies such as South Korea and Singapore to the sinister mix of Maoism and the market that has made China the workshop of the world today.
Yet on what have the EU Commission and the European Parliament been concentrating their energies, as East Asian rivals recover from Covid and continue their onward economic march?
Instead of meeting that challenge, they are wallowing in the ‘woke’ pieties of political correctness, as well as clinging to the enterprise-sapping, job-destroying welfarist model.
The endless barrage of self-loathing propaganda about the iniquities of European civilisation is undermining the continent’s resilience, just as its dynamism is being destroyed by the attachment to vast, creaking social security programmes.
Europe accounts for just 7 per cent of the world’s population but 50 per cent of all welfare spending. Little wonder that all the fastest-growing economies are outside Europe.
It is a further rich irony that the focus on integration actually fuels disharmony. In response to the advance of political correctness, there is a new East-West split in Europe, with Poland and Hungary resisting having rules of everyday life — governing the judiciary and media freedom, and even their own constitutions — dictated to them from a foreign power.
It is hardly surprising that people who led the struggle against the Kremlin’s domination in the communist era are acutely sensitive to being bossed around by Brussels.
The EU will, of course, stagger on for the time being. But the cracks are growing.
The donors are tired of giving and the receivers feel they are being asked to grovel and lick the boots of those who give. Euro-pride comes before a fall.
The poorer parts of the EU could trip up the arrogant and short-sighted elite in Brussels as it attempts to impose a one-size-fits-all straitjacket on the 27 members. As the EU budget shrinks sharply with Brexit, Brussels will have fewer carrots and must rely on more sticks to keep the dissidents in line.
And the EU’s flaws are embodied in the current President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, whose lack of imagination and creative leadership have been on full display this week in the impasse over the Brexit talks.
Although she looks a little like Margaret Thatcher, Ursula is no shopkeeper’s daughter. She was born with a silver Euro-spoon in her mouth. Her father, Ernst Albrecht, was a founder of the European bureaucracy as well as senior West German politician, so Ursula inherited her place at the heart of German politics.
But every ministry she ran turned to dust. She was ejected from the cabinet in Berlin after a disastrous tenure at the Ministry of Defence that left soldiers practising with broomsticks for World War III while vast sums were squandered on consultants.
From being Angela Merkel’s anointed successor, she was parachuted into the job of President of the European Commission — a typical symptom of the EU’s embrace of a second-rate conformist.
Far from handbagging her colleagues and the heads of government into getting things done, Ursula von der Leyen has presided over EU crisis management as a slow-motion sport.
Tinkering with non-essentials has become a substitute for wrestling economic stagnation, population decline and tackling aggressive neighbours such as Russia and Turkey.
That kind of policy paralysis is what led the once-mighty Ottoman Empire straddling the Balkans, the Middle East and North Africa to be called the original ‘Sick Man of Europe’ in the 19th century.
Turkish sultans focused on everything except the essentials needed to saved their empire. The EU is doing much the same today.
Fear of a revived, competitive Britain lies behind Brussels’ constant attempts to lock us into its business-stifling regulations even after Brexit. But even if Britain succumbed to these demands — and as I write, Boris Johnson is insisting that is out of the question — the rest of the world won’t.
Canada, for example, hasn’t had to agree to a ‘level playing field’, obeying the Brussels rulebook at home.
And can you imagine either of the world’s economic superpowers, the U.S. or China, meekly accepting conditions such as those Europe has been trying to inflict on Britain?
Nor are up-and-coming powerhouses such as India going to tie their economic hands behind their backs to keep Brussels happy.
Margaret Thatcher loved the poem Waiting For The Barbarians, by the Greek writer Constantine Cavafy. It caught the mood of a decadent empire which used the barbarian threat as a distraction from internal problems.
For the EU, the end of Brexit will be the equivalent of the ‘bewilderment’ felt by the imperial elite in Cavafy’s poem at the news that the barbarians have moved away.
‘What’s going to happen to us without barbarians? Those people were a kind of solution.’
Britain was Europe’s great excuse for not getting things done. For decades we blocked ‘progress’ to a federal Europe. Then our protracted departure took up Brussels’ time and energy as the world moved on. Now, with Britain gone, what will hold Europe together in the face of self-inflicted wounds and hard realities?
Brexit was a form of life support for Europe’s moribund, log-jammed system.
Even if a deal is reached before the end of the transition period, Europe will still be left without excuses for its problems once Britain goes.
Can Brussels diagnose the EU’s ills accurately? More importantly, will it prescribe the right medicine?
Given its unimpressive record, that seems unlikely. Rather than candidly addressing its deep-seated ailments, Brussels is more concerned to proscribe unwelcome advice from dissenters and stick to the quack remedies that have only worsened its poor health.
The EU has truly become the sick man of Europe.
- Mark Almond is director of the Crisis Research Institute, Oxford.