The Malta Independent 10 April 2020, Friday

The Commonwealth as the EU’s future

Noel Grima Sunday, 13 December 2015, 10:45 Last update: about 5 years ago

Over the past month, we have seen two top-level meetings here – first the EU-Africa summit and then, a fortnight later, the CHOGM.

Admittedly, at the top of our concerns as the meetings unfolded was the security angle. There was also the (toned down) pageantry involved, especially during the visit by the Queen. But maybe we did not give adequate time and attention to compare the two institutions, since we are members of both. I will argue today that the present situation of the EU is such that we may well envisage one of its possible futures as a sort of commonwealth. With our experience of the real Commonwealth, we may then see whether this is a positive development or a negative one.

In a way, we are seeing the EU unravelling before our very eyes.

Gone is the spirit and elan of its very first, post-war years, when all that mattered was to find a way whereby there would be no more war between neighbouring European nations such as France and Germany.

Then, as reconstruction took hold, ambitions grew bolder: the first pact, the Steel Community became the European Economic Community (EEC). Nations clamoured to be allowed to join and Britain suffered the humiliation of De Gaulle’s ‘Non’ until it too was able to join.

Deep down, there was always a core of federalists who wanted the EEC to become the United States of Europe on the US model. Europe has not gone there up until now but not because this core did not try.

The EEC first tried the treaty-change route but this was thrown out by the people of France, a founder member state, and by others. Undeterred, the EEC became the EU by a treaty change that finally obtained popular support.

Then the EU went in for institution-building, beefing up its parliament and the council (the Commission was always strong). The euro was born and with it all the accompanying structures (the ECB, Ecofin, the Eurozone, etc).

Just before that, the single market was launched. More than 20 years later, it is still an unfinished symphony. And while the pillars of the single market were being set up, the structures for the free bases of the single market were set up, noticeably the Schengen-free movement of people.

The crises of the past few years have dented the EU we joined. So far, the euro has survived but the battle is far from over. As a result of the turmoil, the EU has given itself a multitude of structures – SSM, Fiscal Pact, Two-pack, Six-pack – that have greatly increased the supervisory roles over the member states while a second pillar has now been added, banking supervision.

This has come at a cost, a huge cost. Enforced fiscal discipline has made countries choose the austerity path that has cut social services and pushed up unemployment figures sky-high in many countries. The pain has been – and still is – borne by the lower classes. The middle classes have also seen their rise to affluence slowed down or even rolled back.

Predictably, the pain and anguish has now become political, with the rise of euro-sceptic parties that have blossomed – and are rising from fringe parties to mainline parties, sometimes becoming king-makers and sometimes by becoming kings themselves, as in Greece, and maybe – by today – France.

Many times we hear only about these two countries but the situation is actually much worse than that.

It is a fact, for instance, that the average Italian is today worse off than he was when the euro was introduced. Only last week the Danish people voted against ending the country’s opt-out from the EU’s justice and home affairs system. In Finland, which has seen a four-year recession, there is now a motion in parliament to leave the EU.

Both Finland and Italy may find that, although economic logic tells them they will be better off outside the EU, they will still remain inside.

So far, we have not mentioned the UK situation, with the upcoming referendum getting nearer and nearer. The situation here is so intractable that the British question was due to be discussed at the European Council to be held this week but has had to be postponed to March at the earliest.

Over all that, there are now the immigrants’ tidal flow into Europe and the multiple security concerns following the Paris attacks.

All these pressures may lead the EU to make painful changes to the half-cast tightening measures it has in place. I do not think the EU will, for instance, pull down Schengen, but member states have started taking unilateral decisions which amount to this, just the same.

In the end, in other words, I foresee that in some years’ time the EU we – or our children – will see maybe a watered-down version of the EU we joined.

This is where the Commonwealth comes in. A watered-down EU may be something like the Commonwealth – a grouping of countries with nothing much holding them together, no central institutions, no common opus of laws, no common currency. Maybe there’s a shared common history but otherwise it’s each country on its own, having its own foreign policy and, importantly, no treaties binding one and all to defend the territorial integrity of each one, even the smallest island state. The heads of government would come together once every two years, rather than every so often as is the case of the EU – with heads of government meeting almost every week as at the height of the Greek crisis.

And above all, the Queen of the United Kingdom supposedly as the common link when many of the member states have their own king and when the link with the British Sovereign is just that – the meal once every two years.

Historical perspective is important here: the Commonwealth was never as loose-ended as it is now. It was born out of the British Empire, as a sort of alternative when country after country was being given its independence.

I suspect that what the eurosceptics – from Marine Le Pen to Viktor Orban, from Cinque Stelle to Podemos, from UKIP to Syriza – want is a sort of Commonwealth EU, a loose collection of states from which one can exit at any time. I acknowledge that the European Dream has paled for many people, but this sort of Commonwealth EU leaves me colder than ever.

 

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