In a more fragile European context, strong and stable partners like the UK should not be sidelined, writes François Le Goff.
When French President Emmanuel Macron addressed the European Parliament in April, he offered a broad definition of Europe that not only paid tribute to its democratic values and respect for the rule of law but also to the “diversity of ideas, languages and landscapes” that made it so unique in the world.
These were the key components of European identity, he told MEPs, and in the Western world Europe’s longstanding international commitment to environmental, health and climate protection distinguished it quite clearly from allies such as the US. There was therefore no identity crisis for Europe as its distinctive traits were firmly established.
This is all very welcome and the question that then comes to one’s mind is where the UK features in this encouragingly broad vision? Could one of the oldest modern democracies, known for its openness and tolerance towards other cultures and distinctive entrepreneurial spirit, be confined to Europe’s outer circles post-Brexit? If diversity and democratic values are an integral part of the European DNA, Britain would surely have a full role to play in it.
However, many on the continent and in France in particular continue to take a narrow view of Britain’s future relationship with the EU. Recent comments by the EU’s Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier about the UK’s restricted access to the Galileo space programme post-Brexit are, in that sense, a concern. Participants from both sides of the Channel shared this concern during the Club of Three’s annual Plenary meeting in Paris at the end of May.
The EU is right to stick to its treaties and fundamental principles. But it should also start to be more inclusive where possible and put more emphasis on Europe’s core values. The rapidly changing European context warrants a major rethink. These values are being challenged from within: Hungary is increasingly moving towards an authoritarian system and Poland is under EU investigation over its compliance with the rules of law. If this trend is to be confirmed, how could such countries still be EU Member States while the UK would languish at Europe’s periphery? The answer of course is not more exclusion but greater inclusiveness, dialogue and encouragement.
Times have changed since the election of President Macron in France. In May 2017, the EU looked safe and was looking forward to a brighter future after the traumatic outcome of the EU referendum in the UK. Angela Merkel was set to be re-elected as German chancellor and the Euro crisis, also still dormant, seemed to be under control. Britain, however, appeared in trouble and deeply embroiled in internal arguments over its future relationship with the EU.
But the far-right’s rise to power in Austria and, more recently, Italy is a vivid reminder that the populist threat has not gone away. This has left the French President rather isolated in Europe and the worrying prospect of a more fragmented European Parliament following next year’s election will not make his task of rallying Europeans easier. The biggest threat is now coming from Italy where the Five-Star/Lega government has fuelled fresh and very serious concerns about the Eurozone and put the fragile EU deal on migrants in jeopardy.
In this new context, Europe will need to rely on strong and stable partners like the UK who have the same core values and have showed great resilience over the years despite its current problems with Brexit and uncertain future. It would be a strategic error to limit its role to just a handful of issues such as defence and security. The UK’s expertise in areas including energy, environmental protection, scientific research, digitalisation and finance cannot be ignored. It has and will continue to contribute significantly to Europe’s standing in the world vis-à-vis major powers such as China and the US.
François Le Goff is General Secretary of the Club of Three. The views and opinions expressed in this article are personal.