Paris, June 22, 2016
By Axel Krause
As of this writing, the latest polls and views of savvy observers show the nation firmly, stubbornly divided over whether to vote « Yes » to remain in the EU, or « No » to leave, with an estimated 10% of the voters still undecided.
If Brits and citizens of Northern Ireland decide to remain members of the 28-nation bloc they joined in 1973, with tension and anxiety falling, the sense of relief will be resounding – starting with Prime Minister David Cameron who has staked his shaky leadership on the outcome; extending from Brussels to Washington, while calming financial markets around the globe.
That will be followed by a gradual return to the status quo, amid renewed heated debate over reforming and streamlining the cumbersome, heavily-criticized EU governance machinery and its leaders; probably coinciding with possible revival of long-standing, controversial calls for creation of a multiple-speed Europe in hopes of restoring public confidence in the EU’s institutions and the way they operate.
If, however, the opposing « Brexit » or Leave camp wins, here is a plausible scenario projected by France’s highly-respected daily Le Monde and our sources, beginning on Friday at London’s Trafalger Square, continuing on for weeks ahead:
There, facing an applauding crowd, Boris Johnson, London’s flamboyant, conservative former mayor, who earlier made his name EU-bashing as a Brussels correspondent, and is viewed as a strong contender to replace Cameron, will be proudly claiming that having won, Britain now can finally take back control over its destiny.
Meanwhile at10 Downing Street, brushing off repeated calls for his resignation, Cameron announces grimly that, accepting the results of the vote to leave the EU, he will now lead the negotiations in Brussels with the other 27 heads of state and government for agreements. That will presumably end most if not all of Britain’s ties with the EU, involving everything from the single market and the common agricultural policy to health-care reciprocity, along with Britain’s annual net contribution to the EU budget of some 8 billion euros.
And confirming the gloomy forecast by billionaire financier George Soros days earlier that a Leave vote would trigger a « Black Friday, » sterling continues to fall, along with financial and stock markets from New York to Tokyo. Many leading US multinationals and banks based in England confirm contingency plans to relocate elsewhere in the EU. Some longtime anti-British, populist politicians even propose dropping English as an official language of the bloc.
At the EU capital, unable to agree on a negotiating agenda, amid hectic, heated discussions, EU leaders, agree to hear Cameron’s plans and to present their conditions at a previously-scheduled summit on June 28.
There, France’s president Francois Hollande and Germany’s Angela Merkel, argue for swift action under treaty provisions so that the divorce-like procedure can, as specified, be completed within two years, he first of its kind in EU history.
They then present a broad, joint proposal for the remaining EU members – that agree – to push forward with closer integration and cooperation, encompassing defense and security, while empowering the fledgling Eurogroup of 19 member-states to establish its own budget, a legislature and a ministerial-rank official to act as what Elisabeth Guigou, France’s influential, pro-EU chairman of the National Assembly’s foreign affairs committee, described as an « interlocutor » with other EU institutions, notably the European Central Bank and the European Commission.
At the Tory Party’s congress in the autumn, Cameron resigns. New elections follow with Johnson defeating George Osborne, former chancellor of he Exchequer, evoking the conclusion of Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London cited in today’s International New York Times, to the effect that Cameron « miscalculated, taking us out o Europe, almost by mistake and then shuffled off the stage » in « a pretty ignominious exit. »
In January, just-elected President Hillary Clinton, anticipating trouble with a Johnson-led government over the already-troubled, controversial proposed Trade and Investment Partnership, the TTIP, newly-elected President Hillary Clinton, and one of many critics of trade deals, announces suspension of the talks. Global markets and business react negatively. England slips into recession.
Not all these events, of course, will necessarily actually happen. Indeed, if the Remain supporters win the referendum, Cameron will probably remain prime minister for the foreseeable future, proclaiming Britain’s commitment to the EU; no doubt reaffirming his often-repeated calls for streamlining EU decision-making, but rejecting plans for greater integration as proposed Hollande and Merkel. President Barack Obama will certainly praise the positive decision in the interests of a strong, coherent Western alliance. Brussels will return to the status quo, though this scenario is by no means guaranteed, nor generally wanted there or in London.
In one of Professor Bale’s comments quoted in today’s INYT, given Cameron’s small, parliamentary majority and « the number of hardline euro-skeptics and Cameron haters, he’ll be subject to defeats and blackmail until he steps down…for the next two or three years. »
All of the above may not happen, of course.
Indeed, in the event of a Remain victory, an upbeat Cameron will most likely affirm that the vote proves Britain is prepared to continue its role as an active member of the EU. And he will undoubtedly repeat that reforms of the EU are needed, sidestepping, however, the French-German proposals. President Obama welcomes the outcome, emphasizing the continuing need to bolster the Western alliance, as global markets react positively.
Yet despite the Remain victory, nothing in it points to solutions of the bloc’s continuing problems – lackluster economic growth, chronic unemployment, and widespread skepticism, hostility and indifference plus ignorance of what the EU is and does. Rising, populist, conservative-led movements in such member states as Poland, Hungary, Sweden, Italy and France will not give up.
In France, where an estimated 38% of the population views the EU unfavorably, and which in 2005, like the Netherlands, voted against the proposed EU constitution that became the Treaty of Lisbon, far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen and centrist deputy Hervé Mariton, both presidential candidates for the 2017 elections, propose, respectively, pulling out of the euro and organizing « Frenexit » referendum.
Sweden’s Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom, told the BBC recently that « well, if they (the Brits) can leave; maybe we should also leave. »
In her elegant Left Bank office, Guigou, a Socialist, who is one of the nation’s most well-informed and experienced EU leaders, having served as both European Affairs and Justice minister, told me yesterday that the number-one problem facing the EU was tackling the lack of economic growth.
A political « leap » forward is indispensable, she said. In line with the proposed French-German proposal mentioned earlier, notably reinforcing the Eurogroup, France can and must continue domestic economic and labor reforms, though heavily contested in continuing union-led anti-government strikes and often-violent demonstrations in Paris and other French cities.
And Germany, she urges, can and should continue investing, notably in central Europe and participate more actively in military operations, emphasizing that nothing is worse than the status quo.
Axel Krause, the longtime Paris-based contributing editor of TransAtlantic, has covered the EU for decades, for Business Week magazine and the International Herald Tribune. He is the author of Inside the New Europe.