Which way now for the EU?

Britain's decision to leave the European Union has plunged the future of the organization into uncertainty, writes Christopher Goff.

Britain was a big player in the European Union. Of the 571 MEPs that sit in the European Parliament, almost 10% are from the UK. But, of course, all that is set to change following the historic decision of the British people to leave.

One wonders in the short term what will happen to all those empty seats. Will they be removed from the chamber so as to allow the remaining MEPs some more legroom? Will all the extra space lead to a re-drawing of regions so that more MEPs get sent in the first place, in order to make up the numbers? Or, perhaps instead the seats will be put into storage awaiting some Turkish backsides, however, with a population of some 80 million people Turkey would need a fair few more seats than the 73 about to be relinquished by the UK. If Turkey were to join the EU one would expect that with a population similar to that of Germany's the Turks would be allowed a similar number of seats as what the Germans currently have, at which time a bigger chamber might even be required.

On the issue of Turkey joining the EU it seems that lots of people just did not believe the claim of the Remain campaign that the Turks would not be allowed to join. But the British people are clearly perceptive enough to know that things can change over time, and indeed Turkey's bid to join the EU has recently been energised in reward for its help in dealing with the ongoing migrant crisis. Certainly, the irony will not be lost on those who voted to leave the EU if Britain one day finds itself in a similar position to the one currently occupied by Turkey, that being one of no access to the European Single Market and no free movement of its citizens.

One consequence of Britain's vote to leave the EU has seemingly been the effect that the decision has had on the drive by the remaining Member States to expand the size of the organization, and who now appear more determined than ever to welcome a number of Balkan States into the fold, including Macedonia, Montenegro, Albania and Serbia. Serbia is expected to become a member of the EU by 2020. And while some commentators might have thought that Britain's vote to leave would prompt a re-think by the EU on its plans for expansion, this seems not to have been the case.

While the geographical enlargement of the EU appears set to continue there are, however, some voices of concern from within the EU itself over its stated aim of ever-increasing political integration. Britain's decision to leave has brought into sharp focus the contrasting attitudes of those who support more federalization, and on the other hand the Eurosceptics who say that greater political integration conflicts with the important concepts of national sovereignty and cultural identity. On the issue of greater political integration, one cannot help but think that right from the birth of the idea of a union of European countries it seems that there has never really been much thought put into what the final configuration of the EU might look like, and that this lack of a distinct political destination is going to become more and more of a hindrance to greater political integration.

It is rumoured that Hungary might be the first to follow the example set by the UK and leave if the EU is successful in its plans to impose migrant quotas. But fortunately for the EU, those steps taken by the organization to help tackle the large number of mainly Syrian and Iraqi migrants crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece seem to be working in so far as the numbers of illegal migrants entering Hungary from Serbia are significantly down on 2015's figures – about 1,000 people are currently thought to be entering Hungary illegally each week. In an attempt to demonstrate their resolve to tackle the problem of migrants entering Hungary illegally, the Hungarian Government has recently despatched a force of 10,000 soldiers and Police Officers to the border with Serbia in an attempt to seal it entirely.

Most of the illegal migrants entering Hungary eventually cross into Austria, and EU supporters are becoming increasingly nervous at the impending arrival in that country of a further round of elections for the position of President and the very real prospect of victory for the right-wing Freedom Party candidate, Norbert Hofer. While the Freedom Party is widely considered to be anti-EU, people are not sure whether success for Hofer would move the country any closer towards the holding of a referendum on its membership of the organization. Heinz-Christian Strache, the Leader of the Freedom Party, has previously only suggested the holding of a referendum on Austria's membership of the EU if the European Parliament were to assume more powers or if Turkey were to accede to the bloc.

The growth of Eurosceptic sentiment is also flourishing in other EU Member States besides just Hungary and Austria. Marine Le Pen of France's National Front, Frauke Petry of Alternative for Germany, Geert Wilders of the Dutch Freedom Party, and Matteo Salvini of Italy's Lega Nord have all benefited from recent surges in support against a background of high levels of immigration. The ability of the European Union to control its borders is fast becoming a priority issue for the organization, and it is interesting how the recent rise in popularity of right-wing political parties has had the effect of focusing the attention of EU leaders on this very issue. While many EU citizens bemoan the negative impact that high levels of immigration have had on their daily lives it seems that EU leaders are only choosing to focus more on the issue of migration because of the consequential growth in support for right-wing political parties.

But nothing shakes the foundations of the EU quite like a financial crisis, and as it happens one might just be forming in Italy as a knock-on effect of the poorly performing banking sector in that country and which over the past decade has lent out billions of euros seemingly without giving much thought to how this money will ever be repaid – it is estimated that Italian businesses and private borrowers owe the banks an eye-watering 360 billion euros. Combine this with the fact that the Italian economy has barely shown any signs of growth since 1999 and when Italy first joined the eurozone, and you have the prospect of a finanical crisis forming capable of making the one in Greece look a mere downturn by comparison. Senior economists are warning that if Italy – the third largest economy in the eurozone – were to ditch the euro then the currency would die a very quick death.

To say that this is an important time for the EU is understating it somewhat. In the aftermath of Britain's decision to leave some EU-insiders are advocating a move towards greater political integration, while others are warning that this would run the risk of more countries splitting from the supra-national bloc. The issue of greater political integration is fast becoming a 'double-edged sword' for the EU and decisions on this matter are likely to be critical in deciding whether the European Union lives or dies by this particular sword.

Copyright © Christopher Goff
Tag: Brexit
Uploaded: 18 July, 2016.