The significance of the awakening corpse

by Bill Emmott | 20.06.2017

There is a strong sense of a new beginning for the European Union, one that has nothing to do with Brexit but much to do with Emmanuel Macron and with an economic upswing. As the former Le Monde editor Natalie Nougayrede wrote in The Guardian, the change of mood in Europe is bringing talk of “new roadmaps” between President Macron and Chancellor Angela Merkel, of a chance not just to revive Franco-German cooperation but also to rebuild the European Union.

Some of this talk may be Schadenfreude, pleasure at the misfortunes of others, especially now that France’s youthful new president is sitting on exactly the sort of parliamentary dominance that Britain’s Conservatives were expecting barely two months ago. Some, certainly, is premature, with unemployment still high, the anti-euro Five Star Movement still leading Italian opinion polls, and with migrants still arriving, and dying, in large if diminished numbers from across the Mediterranean.

Certainly, whatever problems Macron may encounter in achieving the reforms he promises, the contrast between the British and continental moods is a far cry from eurosceptic talk of how Britain’s EU membership meant it was shackled to a corpse, as Douglas Carswell so eloquently put it, echoing a First World War phrase about Germany’s alliance with the fading Austro-Hungarian empire. The scholarly Daniel Hannan MEP made the same claim in his also war-referencing video, Ici Londres.

So, while most of the British focus is on what difference our election result and consequent governmental fragility may make to the Brexit negotiations, it is worth asking the corresponding question about the other side of the Channel: what difference might an awakening “corpse” make?

EU reanimated

There are likely to be three parts to this, beyond the simple question of how far the EU really does reawaken: an effect on the interests of the other 27 member states in the Brexit talks; an effect on the domestic politics of some of those member states; and an effect on British public opinion.

Let’s take those in turn. The effect on the interests of the other 27 member states is likely to be minimal or non-existent, just as the effect of Britain’s governmental fragility on our interests is also likely to be minimal. Absent any serious further threats of withdrawal or substantial fragmentation – which Marine Le Pen’s resounding defeat has removed, for now, though Italy’s Five Star could in theory pose such an issue, if they were to get close to power – the interest of the 27 in minimising the disruption of Brexit, in protecting the existing treaties and in maintaining a friendly relationship with Britain will remain the same.

Interests typically do not change with swings of mood or fortune, especially in such a deep, strategic relationship as this. But domestic politics can be affected by mood swings, and probably will be, to some extent. However a strong Macron, like a strong Merkel if that is what Germany has after that country’s elections in September, will feel little need to pander to nationalistic domestic opinion by being “tough” on Britain. His political success, combined with a warmer economic climate, can be expected to allow him to follow French and EU interests closely, rather than playing political games.

The real variable lies in the third part: British public opinion. Comparing the 1975 referendum with 2016, a key difference was plainly the sense a year ago that the EU was a dysfunctional, divided, perhaps even failing entity, whereas four decades earlier it had looked like a success story. During the 18 months of divorce negotiations, and even more so during the likely longer negotiations during a transitional period, that sense could change.

New roadmaps

If the talk of new roadmaps proves to be genuine, we can expect major initiatives in at least three main areas: defence, infrastructure and the euro. Of those, progress or otherwise on the euro is unlikely to concern Britain. That would not, however, be true of the other two.

If Macron and Merkel were to agree upon an ambitious programme of public investment, for example, outside the EU’s fiscal pact and focused most likely on infrastructure and an electricity supergrid, this could produce some jealous glances from Britain. This would not necessarily change minds about membership as such, but it could alter thinking and interests about the terms of our future relationship.

The same is true of defence. Longstanding British objections to any threat of sidelining NATO has held back EU defence cooperation, so Brexit will make that easier. But Britain will still be affected, and perhaps tempted, both by moves to co-ordinate defence procurement (for which cost and US-dependency is as big a problem for Britain as it is for France), and by further development of joint operations, as are already being conducted (with British participation) in the Mediterranean. Again, EU progress could alter British thinking about what sort of future relationship could be in our interest.

The European awakening could bring surprises and progress in all sorts of fields, including trade relations with Asian, African and Latin American countries. If the “corpse” really starts to become an athlete again, the country that chose to be a spectator, Britain, cannot fail to be affected.

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    Edited by Luke Lythgoe

    2 Responses to “The significance of the awakening corpse”

    • Mr Lythgoe makes many valid points in his article but unfortunately gives the impression that the EU/UK debate is purely about the economic/financial benefits of the EU. To talk of a corpse in the context of the EU is however , to mislead those persons with little knowledge of the EU. The EU is a living dynamic institution. The economic/financial benefits of the EU are indeed considerable and they will become more and more obvious to the man in the street as the Brexit talks take place.However the main purpose of the European movement was at another level. The purpose of the drive for closer European integration was to put an end to the catastrophic conflicts of previous centuries. The ambition was to create instruments for closer cooperation, to integrate policies and economies where desirable etc. As such the EU has been a fantastic success story. That it needs to review the way it works is normal as with any human institution. The tragedy of the UK/EU relationship is the extraordinary ignorance of the citizens of the UK about the purpose of the institution itself, ignorance exploited by the prejudice of a few.

    • My question is really what the interest of the awakening corpse of the EU in an increasingly sickening U.K. could be. The point being that first the media were freely allowed to paint the EU as a dying entity with a lot of plain lies, that the population lapped up because they wanted to believe all that thrash about foreigners. Then, having a chance to stop the pending disaster of Brexit in its tracks with May’s completely uncalled for snap election, these people decide in a still substantial majority that brexit is OK, so get it done and over with. Why even bother to show the EU as good and important, certainly when Brits are likely to keep focussing on its less impressive sides and walk out some other time. I must confess that my opinion on this matter was much sharpened during a recent visit to Germany and The Netherlands during which these matters were regularly discussed. The absurd hostility toward the EU shown by the likes of May, Johnson, Davis and little people like Nigel Farage shows up as having wreaked serious damage.