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Brexit is changing Europe - already

Brexit, Election 2019, EU reform

When is Brexit coming? This month, next month, next year - or not at all? Our WG Europe spokesman Stefan Padberg claims that: "It's already here! The Brexit referendum of June 2016 has already profoundly changed our perception of Europe. And Brexit has lost its charme.“

Do you remember your feelings after you realised the victory of the Brexiteers? Despite being critical of the EU, my first feelings were about the uncertainty of further development of the EU. After all, it's not chicken feed when the third-largest economy leaves the EU. I also felt fear of a nationalist wave building throughout Europe, causing a right-wing populist domino effect. A few days later, however, a new insight emerged: The EU is not a one-way street! You can opt-out and leave the union. Yes, Article 50 TEU really does exist. You can also say 'No more' to an "ever closer union"! From a democratic perspective, I was partly relieved to find out that the road to an "ever closer union" is not just one-wy..

There is no one-way road to an "ever closer union".

Ever since we started the Stop TTIP campaign, we have stated that international treaties must always have exit clauses. It contradicts democratic principles when cooperation agreements are unterminable. Thus, they are withdrawn from the democratic decision-making process once they have come into force.

This also applies to EU Treaties. But in Germany this has never been an issue. Membership of the EU was state doctrine, its questioning seen as a breach of taboo. The discussions always followed the pattern: either you are pro EU, or you are a backward nationalist. There was rarely space for a "Yes, but...".

Brexit has changed this. Suddenly EU membership was no longer an inevitable destiny, since one could opt out and leave. "Take back control", one of the central slogans of the Brexiteers, is a basic democratic principle, understood subconsciously by everyone immediately!

Consequently, the EU was under threat. Its break-up was suddenly conceivable. The shock and uncertainty about Brexit reached far into the inner circles of the EU. This in turn created new ways and strong need to behave positively towards the EU. "Pulse of Europe" was born as people took to the streets to stand up for Europe! The French President Emanuel Macron won the presidential elections in France against the right-wing nationalist Marine Le Pen and shortly thereafter gave his meanwhile almost historic speech at the Sorbonne university, in which he called in bold words for (somewhat less bold) reforms of the EU.

The culture of debate inside the EU has become more open

Looking back, one could say that something like a "European public sphere" emerged in Europe, perhaps for the first time, just because of Brexit. For a long while in Europe, the only topic of discussion was "Brexit". Further it would seem that Brexit-shock mobilised newsrooms to finally drag European topics from the international sections of their newspapers and magazines to the frontpages. I don't think it's only my perception, but since then we have been thinking differently, we are being informed differently and have been talking differently about European topics.

Backroom politics seems to be disappearing. Governments are discussing their positions in public. Until Brexit, only insiders and specialised journalists knew which government held which position, but today it is being discussed in public across the European media. Emmanuel Macron, Mark Rutte, Sebastian Kurz - their speeches and press conferences are creating a media hype, a real public interest unprecedented before Brexit.

Another indication that fits into this picture was the publication of the White Paper on the Future of Europe by the EU Commission. It outlined five scenarios: (1) "Continue as before", (2) "Focus on the Internal Market", (3) "Who wants more does more", (4) "Less, but more efficient" and (5) "Much more joint action". As far as I know, this was the first time that a Commission did not simply set clear targets, but opened up a space for debate. This was an important signal to stimulate discourse at European level.

The EU Parliament on its way to becoming a European campfire

The EU Parliament has increasingly become a place of public interest. For example, if you compare the debate on the GDPR, which took place mainly in 2015, with the debate earlier this year on the copyright reform, you can see that a real public debate took place in Europe. The internet certainly played a major role in this because some of those affected are very internet-savvy. But even the traditional print media and public newsrooms must have changed something, because the reporting was much more intense. I sensed what it could mean if Parliament really were the central place for European debates, what leverage it could give us for the formation of a genuinely European consciousness.

Never as often as in recent months did I read in the commentaries of the most diverse German newspapers that Parliament must be given more rights, that the EU Council's veto options must be pushed back, that we need to reform the structure of the EU institutions, and so on.

The European elections are becoming interesting

The increased interest in the EU Parliament will certainly have an effect on the turnout in the European elections. At the present time, two weeks before the elections, it looks as if the turnout will be significantly higher than in the previous European elections. These elections certainly do not have the all-important significance that some people attribute to them ("against the right, against nationalism" etc.). But we feel now that this Parliament has meaning for us, that what is being discussed and decided there is important.

There are now 40 parties and electoral alliances up for election in Germany. Last time we had only 25 parties on the ballot. 33 electoral lists are up for election in France, in Greece there are 40 parties on the ballot. The situation is similar in many other EU member states. We haven't seen such diversity for a long time. People seem to like the opportunities the elections offer to them. A number of organisations, some of which have been formed by very young people, are running for Parliament. And never before have there been so many assumptions, in the run-up to a European election, about possible coalitions and parliamentary groups and their presumed percentage in the new Parliament.

After the elections, we will see what new opportunities there will be for advancing the democratisation of the EU. Is there a sufficient number of MEPs in the new European Parliament who want to work toward institutional reform? Will the new EU Commission address this issue? Will the heads of government publicly calling for a treaty change in recent months take action? We will be vigilant and seize the opportunities. We should in any case advocate a treaty amendment convention under Article 48 TEU and work towards public participation in the broadest possible way - if the EU institutions finally find the courage to face up to the necessary reforms.

Brexit has lost its charm

In my view, this all comes from Brexit. The EU is much more a reality for us today than it was three years ago. Europe is beginning to be fun, the one-sided ranting about Brussels has given way to a more differentiated style of thinking. And the idea of Europe has captivated the minds of the younger generations who are beginning to realise how importat taking action is to avoid Europe failing.

On the other hand, Brexit has clearly lost its flavour. The numerous UK parliamentary votes on Brexit this year have not lead to a decision and revealed a genuine constitutional crisis in British politics, which is very much based on an irreconcilable opposition between government and the opposition and leaves no space for agreement and dialogue. But, we have also seen how complex this issue of withdrawal is. It is not only the British system of government and the parliamentary tradition in London that is being criticised but the exit itself. Many passionate EU sceptics have tacitly shelved their resignation demands for their respective countries, such as the Swedish Left Party ("Vänsterpartiet"), the right-wing Swedish Democrats, Marine Le Pen and its Rassemblement National and the FPÖ. The German AfD has also significantly dampened its Dexit demands. All of them are now looking for internal "reform of the EU" and potential alliances in the future EU Parliament. They do not have a common vision for a new EU which will make it difficult for them to achieve. But attempts will be made by these groups to initiate reforms in the EU. Doesn't their new strategy loudly show that the European Parliament is stronger than they want it to be?

A withdrawal as a deliberative challenge

We all have had to learn that leaving the EU is the start, not the end of a deliberative process in which the various interests of society must be reprioritised, because the impact of its consequences will vary: in the fishing industry different from the oil industry, in Northern Ireland different from Wales, in the financial industry different from the countryside, and so on. The Brexit vote was not the widthdrawal itself, but the very beginning of this exit process which failed mainly because the Tory government under Theresa May wanted to "work through" Brexit as a completely normal government project and did not allow a broad social debate. "The people has decided for Brexit, we have to deliver Brexit."

The economic and legal interdependencies within the EU are now so strong that their dismantling will inevitably have serious economic and legal consequences. However, these consequences are unequally distributed within society. Therefore, the cornerstones of the exit scenario must be discussed in society as a whole. The instrument of the Citizens' Assembly, as we saw in Ireland, could be well suited for this purpose.

For a withdrawal process to be democratic, inclusive and transparent, it should be structured in four stages: (1) Withdrawal referendum, (2) Deliberative stage with Citizens' Council or similar, determination of key points (3) only then activation of Article 50 TEU and negotiations with the EU, (4) confirmatory referendum on the outcome of the negotiations, whereby its rejection would not result in a hard exit, but the withdrawal of the withdrawal request according to Article 50 TEU.

On the way to EU reform

At this point, however, I would like to emphasise that resignation is not the best solution. It is better to work toward a reform of the EU's institutional structure. More and more people seem to understand this today.

There are signs that once the European elections are over, the Brexit is accomplished and the uncertainties it has created are overcome, the next EU reform will be on the agenda. a As civil society, we should prepare ourselves for this now and try to preoccupy ourselves the relevant topics. In my view these are:

  • Demand for an Art. 48 Convention and its formation as a citizens' convention

  • More rights for Parliament, more transparency in Council

  • Europe-wide confirming referendum for treaty changes

  • The single market must not stand in the way of a social Europe

  • Decentralisation: Which tasks should the EU take on? Which ones can it do better than the nation states alone? And which ones don't?

In a next article I would like to examine these questions in more detail. I would be pleased if you would send  me your ideas on these issues.

Stefan Padberg, Working group Europe and World of the association Mehr Demokratie

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