Friday,15 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1312, (22-28 September 2016)
Friday,15 December, 2017
Issue 1312, (22-28 September 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Brexit and Bratislava

European Union leaders in Bratislava have been battling nerves to keep calm and carry on without Britain, writes Gamal Nkrumah

EU summit
EU summit
Al-Ahram Weekly

The European misreading of the British Brexit referendum has confounded politicians across the continent. European leaders after all must not assume that European unity is set in stone, even if there is no sign that they are willing to look past their differences.

Politicians in the British Brexit referendum sang to a very different tune. Why did Britons vote for Brexit in the referendum on the country’s leaving the European Union? This is the burning question that European leaders pondered in the Slovak capital Bratislava over the weekend, with the conspicuous absence of British Prime Minister Theresa May.   

Keeping the continent united requires vigilance and resourcefulness. The notion of a united Europe reinforces the need for a public display of solidarity, but the ramifications of Brexit still rankle.

The European Union has never been challenged in this way before, and the Brexit crisis shows that trust and collective action are the most precious priorities in contemporary Europe. With or without Britain, EU fears of disintegration have forced Europeans to focus on what unites them, even if there are signs of cracking under the strain.

Ironically, the EU summit took place in a member state of the Visegrad Group, or V4, an informal body composed of the four EU nations of Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and the EU summit’s host nation Slovakia.

All the V4 nations are vociferous in their rejection of German chancellor Angela Merkel’s open door policy as far as refugees and asylum-seekers from war-torn countries such as Syria are concerned. Slovakia has also vowed to make Brexit “very painful” for the British, and the V4 nations have urged the EU to make Britain “pay dearly” for Brexit.

Poland currently holds the presidency of the V4 group, and Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydło does not wish to see asylum-seekers from the Middle East in Poland. “I say very clearly that I see no possibility at this time of immigrants coming to Poland,” she stated in Brussels in March. Surveys suggest that Szydlo’s views have strong support in Poland.

Soon after the British referendum, Merkel paid a visit to her immediate eastern neighbours, and they were adamant that her open door policy on refugees was disastrous. During the negotiations with Czech President Miloš Zeman and President of the Senate Milan Štěch, Merkel was greeted with a categorical no to her seeking agreement on refugee quotas.

There is an east-west divide in Europe today. The Foreign Minister of Luxembourg, Jean Asselborn, told the German newspaper Die Welt recently that Hungary “should be expelled” from the EU if it refused to accept refugee quotas. Hungary should be “excluded temporarily or if need be forever from the EU,” Asselborn was quoted as saying.  

Hungary’s expulsion would be the only way to “ensure that the values ​​of the EU are preserved,” he said. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier concurred with Asselborn.

What makes Britain’s Brexit referendum relevant to the V4 is not the result, but the resentment it indicates against the influx of asylum-seekers. It also shows hostility to the likes of Merkel, Steinmeier and Asselborn.

Hungary and other V4 nations, however, have no intention of leaving the EU. Asselborn’s counterpart Peter Szijjarto suggested that the tiny Grand Duchy’s foreign minister had “long left the ranks of politicians who could be taken seriously.”

Events could yet unbalance this precariously drawn battle between eastern and western Europe. On 2 October, Hungarians vote in a referendum on whether to accept an EU-mandated quota on distributing asylum-seekers across the bloc. The vast majority of Hungarians are likely to reject the EU-mandated quotas.

Merkel must also hold her nerve, while having to face the fact that an increasing number of Germans are against hosting more asylum-seekers as her humiliating defeat in the 5 September Mecklenburg-West Pomerania elections in Germany clearly demonstrated.

The rise of the populist right, anti-Islamic feeling, and anti-asylum-seeker sentiments in Germany demonstrates that the tide of warmly welcoming refugees and asylum-seekers is turning in the country and the continent.  

On 23 June, Britons decided in a historic referendum to leave the EU. It is against this backdrop that the leaders of the remaining 27 EU member states met in Bratislava. The “Brexiteers” were adept at using social media, even though most younger Britons voted against Brexit even as the elderly settled for it.

There is always a degree of apprehension when faced with an unprecedented move by one of the leading members of the EU, and Germany will now be obliged to foot a quarter of the bloc’s budget.

Even as the V4 member states seem set to reassert their position within the EU, they are forcing out Britain and making it feel unwelcome. Immigration was a key issue in the referendum, and many Polish and other eastern Europeans in Britain now feel threatened.

London voted against Brexit, and so did Scotland. Why the Scots voted against was of no concern to the EU leaders in Bratislava. There was also the now largely forgotten case of Jo Cox, an anti-Brexit British Labour Party MP who was assassinated in the run-up to the EU referendum.

The demagoguery of the firebrands who fought for Brexit continues to haunt Britain. “People need to look at this image and think: is this the future I want,” said Harriet Kingaby, a spokesperson from We Are Europe, a campaign group.

In the immediate aftermath of Cox’s murder, Speaker of the British Parliament John Bercow lamented the fact that the House of Commons had gathered in “heartbreaking sadness”. Bercow led the tributes in a packed House, explaining that Cox had “outstanding qualities... she was caring, eloquent, principled and wise.” Cox’s husband Brendan and their two children were in the public gallery to hear the tributes.

Speaking next, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn told MPs wearing white roses in memory of Cox that “we have lost one of our own.”

Is the EU now doomed, many have been asking. In Bratislava, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipiras drew attention to the southern European nations that have traditionally been the first recipients of asylum-seekers from the southern shores of the Mediterranean.

Tsipiras proposed the notion of a “Southern European Front” and was backed by French President Francois Hollande. But what the southern Europeans are demanding is radically different from the fears of the eastern Europeans. The global economic culture has entrenched a mindset of callousness and self-indulgence that was clearly palpable in Bratislava.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker dismissed any suggestion that there would be concessions on free movement in the negotiations with Britain in the aftermath of Brexit.

 “I have had enough discussions to know that there was one major issue, which is the freedom of movement of workers, and I will not change that because this is a basic freedom of the EU,” Juncker stressed. “If you want to have access like other member states to the internal market, you have to accept all the conditions of the four freedoms that underline the single market,” he added.

Donald Tusk, the European Council president who chairs EU summits, urged restraint. He warned that it would be “a fatal error” to assume that the Brexit referendum was a specifically British issue, describing it as “a desperate attempt to answer the questions that millions of Europeans ask themselves daily” about Europe.

There were other voices of reason. “We have to show with our actions that we can get better,” the German chancellor said. The bloc had to improve “in the domains of internal and external security, the fight against terrorism, and cooperation in the field of defence” Merkel concluded. 

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