Vocal Europe: How do you asses the outcome? Did you expect such a result?
Stefan Gehrold: I had spent a week in London in February and had gained the impression, that a Brexit was more likely, than a pro EU vote. Back in Brussels other observers and officials convinced me, that things would work out eventually. So, the result surprised me to a certain extent, but was not entirely unexpected. The British population decided about the UK’s future in the EU and decided against it. This has to be respected. It is sad at the one hand, that Great Britain opted for not being a part of the European integration process any longer, but it was perhaps inevitable. Neither have our British friends been very happy with the EU nor have the others been very happy with the british approach to negotiate exceptions and strengthen the national position to the detriment of others. So, this might be an occasion to carry on with the “willing”. It is hard to tell at the moment, whether this is anything more than wishful thinking.
VE: What is your perception of German public opinion on Brexit? Does German society is concerned about the future of united Europe?
SG: Within the population there seems to be a sigh of relief, that the “troublemakers” eventually left Judging from what I read and hear, official voices including the chancellor react more moderately and unemotionally and emphasize the significance of a profound partnership with the UK. Markets and businesses are certainly concerned about the future relations with the UK. I don’t perceive a deep concern as to the future of united Europe yet. There is, however, a visible public debate on the issue, how to respond to the result of the referendum. It is obvious, that many voters all over Europe do not agree with the European integration process.
VE: What happens now? It seems that Britain is now entering a difficulty negotiating period on the terms of its exit, which could drag on for years. What should we expect from such a period?
SG: The UK and the Union will have to come to an agreement concerning the exit modalities. Afterwards the two parties will try to negotiate one or more subsequent covenants. For the union a quick end of the exit negotiations would be desirable. The longer this process lasts, the harder it will be to forge ahead with restructuring the EU. My understanding is, that the Commission and the Parliament are less eager to carve out follow-up agreements. In any case, I expect a period of uncertainty, which will not be to the advantage of any of the parties involved.
VE: Many now argue that the recent statement made by Ms Merkel regarding the Brexit is very standard and do not address the key concerns that are shared by millions across the continent. For that, is there a need to initiate an institutional reform agenda targeting the shortcomings that let Brexit happen?
SG: I do agree, that Dr. Merkel’s statement is standard. But anything else would have been wrong under the given circumstances. Downplaying the situation was necessary in order to undramatise it.
More important: Millions across the continent might be dissatisfied with the integration process. But millions are dissatisfied with the political situation in their home countries. And millions might also be satisfied. One thing, however, is clear: When you ask those millions, why they are dissatisfied, millions of different reasons will be mentioned and even more possible solutions, largely contradicting one another.
The truth is, that whenever the commission sat down with representatives of the member states and talked about retransferring competences to the national level, the number of potential legislative sectors to be renationalised was dwindling rapidly. So, institutional reform is necessary in my eyes. Yet, I doubt, that millions across the continent would share my proposals, how to target the shortcomings. I even doubt, that they would share my assessment in singling out the deficits. My forecast is, that we won’t see any radical reforms, just because opinions are too diverse both amongst politicians and amongst the cititzens.
VE: Many are in opinion that refugee crisis and EU’s commitment for further enlargement caused the chaos that EU is today going through. If this is the case, what is your opinion vis-a-vis EU’s enlargement portfolio? Is it realistic to imagine that Enlargement will remain a key policy area for the EU in the coming years?
SG: I don’t share this assumption. The union does have deficits, but it is not going through chaos. The refugee crisis would have struck the continent with or without the existence of the EU. And: The EU hardly has any competences in the field of refugee management. The EU wanted enlargement and it needs enlargement, because enlargement has been the tool to export stability and spread democracy over the continent. Enlargement happened too quickly in some of the cases, I agree. Is this a reason to artificially obstruct enlargement, once a country fulfills the Copenhagen criteria? No. Enlargement dynamics have slowed down visibly over the past years. And it is obvious, that the commission will not press for enlargement to happen soon, which is bad news for countries, that want to join, like Serbia.
VE: There are some rumors arguing that in post-Brexit era, German – Franco alliance will further dominate the EU and Germany’s influential position in the EU will further strengthen. What is your take on that?
SG: With the British leaving other countries will gain influence. That is true in particular for bigger nations like Germany, France, Spain, Italy and Poland. Also, the stronger a country is economically, the higher its influence within the union. France, Italy and Spain are struggling economically. And I do have my doubts as to the robustness of Germany’s and Poland’s national economies. Partly as a consequence of protectionist legislation in both countries under the current governments I predict a slow-down in growth in 2017.
Franco-German alliance: The two governments are led by parties from different political camps. The differences between the German christian democrats and the French socialists regarding social, financial and economic policy are huge. How can 2 countries dominate the EU, if they disagree largely on crucial political issues?
Out of those observations I don’t see a domination of the EU from any side.
Another question is, whether I perceive political leadership, which in my eyes is essential. Currently, Angela Merkel seems to be the European leader. Some say, she is the only one. Now, she may lose next year’s election. In that case the absence of political leadership might be felt grimly.
VE: As you might follow, populist parties in other EU member states were the first to react to the news, with Geert Wilders of the Dutch anti-Islam and eurosceptic Party for Freedom calling for their own referendum, he said: “We want be in charge of our own country, our own money, our own borders, and our own immigration policy,” he said. “If I become prime minister, there will be a referendum in the Netherlands on leaving the European Union as well. Let the Dutch people decide.” Are you concerned that such exit(s) can take place in different EU member states in the coming mounts and years? In that respect, is it too early to talk about a multi-speed Europe?
SG: Yes, I am concerned, that other countries might leave the EU. Different countries have different rules, when it comes to referenda. Some nations’ legal systems don’t provide for referenda at all. In principle I am a great supporter of representative democracy. My hope is, that we won’t see more referenda, that could lead to member states leaving the union. My prediction knowing the Netherlands and with a deep affection for the Dutch society: The Dutch will never leave the EU. Is a multi-speed EU likely to materialise? If some member states want to speed up integration and others don’t, this may be an option. Personally, I am convinced, that we will need more integrative steps in core political sectors, such as the monetary union or the Schengen system. A multi-speed EU, however, contains the danger to mutate into a multi-class EU, which should be avoided.
*Dr. Stefan Gehrold is KAS’ Head of European Office