As the United Kingdom elects a new government on 12 December, likely a Tory government under Boris Johnson with a comfortable absolute majority, Brexit looms ever larger – and with it resurface doubts as to what could have been done to prevent it. The answer is relatively simple. When David Cameron came to his European counterparts in 2015 with a list of more or less reasonable demands on the state of the EU and what he wanted changed, we should have done better than we did. Instead of the half-hearted appeasement attempts, Germany should have genuinely considered what was on the table. We should have joined forces with the UK to elaborate and promote a genuine reform agenda for the European Union. One that would have been acceptable for the UK and good for all of us.
Make no mistake, calling a referendum on leaving the EU was a political mistake, a careless gamble that Cameron lost terribly. However, it is worth revisiting what exactly was demanded prior to this. And to look at the bigger picture of reforming the European Union.
So what exactly was demanded by Cameron?
“We will insist that EU migrants who want to claim tax credits and child benefit must live here and contribute to our country for a minimum of four years.”
Sounds pretty reasonable.
A mechanism to ensure that “Britain can’t be discriminated against because it’s not part of the euro, can’t pick up the bill for eurozone bail-outs, crucially can’t have imposed on it changes the eurozone want to make without our consent.”
This, too, hardly sounds unreasonable.
“If an EU migrant’s child is living abroad, then they should receive no child benefit, no matter how long they have worked in the UK and no matter how much tax they have paid.”
Can’t argue with that either.
The lists of demands is slightly longer, but the core issues are clear: fixing problems with inner-European migration (basically the result of freedom of movement combined with rapid EU expansion towards Eastern Europe – and no functioning rules to balance the resulting dynamics); freedom of currency and freedom from Euro-domination; allowing for a “Europe at different speeds”; no to further and irreversible political integration (end goal “European Superstate”); alleviating the burden of excessive regulation.
Whether one fundamentally agrees with one side or the other of this debate (i.e. pro USE or not) is irrelevant here. The omen, the signs of political discontent in the population were clear: if we continue to ignore the fact that at the national level there are no majorities for an ever closer union (yet), and that certain dynamics (see above) seriously undermine the legitimacy of the EU (skillfully exploited by national politicians), we are running into a brick wall head first. The rise of anti-EU right-wing populist parties over the past years in virtually all European countries underpins this concern.
So what could have been done better? The fact is that no alternative reform agenda was ever formulated. Emmanuel Macron currently seems to be the only political leader on the continent with a genuine vision for Europe, even though it is clearly a post-Brexit vision. The dwindling German Social Democrats and the rising Greens are largely aligned with this vision. The political centre, centre-right and liberals, in turn, have failed to develop a powerful reform agenda, an alternative model for Europe with the UK inside the EU. Merkel’s Christian Democrats were in charge and could have done so. But great visions and monumental political reform were never Merkel’s strong point.
Alas, the damage is done. But lessons can and should still be learned. Europe is far from ready for what Macron and the EU partisans in Brussels would like to see materialise as soon as possible. We might want to put the foot on the brake, or rather, steer in a somewhat different direction, if we don’t want to jeopardise the great achievements of past decades, and, crucially, keep the EU alive and whole.