Brexit Briefing: No EU superstate leap on horizon


by: Tony Barber.

There is at best thin public support among member states for any far-reaching unifying steps.

For the EU, life after Brexit goes on. Matteo Renzi, Italy’s prime minister, will play host on Monday to François Hollande and Angela Merkel, the French president and German chancellor, on Ventotene, an island near Naples.

There will be much for them to discuss: Europe’s uncertain economic outlook, terrorism, relations with Russia, Turkey and the tide of refugees and migrants flowing across the Mediterranean into Italy. But the overriding issue is how to protect and strengthen the EU after Britain’s vote on June 23 to leave the 28-nation bloc.

It is no accident that the Italian government selected Ventotene for the meeting. For in 1941 Ernesto Rossi and Altiero Spinelli, two Italian intellectuals imprisoned on the island under Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime, wrote the so-called “Ventotene Manifesto”, a document known to historians as an early clarion call for the political unification of Europe.

The key sentence of the Ventotene Manifesto reads as follows: “The question which must be resolved first, failing which progress is no more than mere appearance, is the definitive abolition of the division of Europe into national, sovereign states.”

Such grand sentiments played into the hands of anti-EU forces in the UK referendum campaign. They contended that Europe was turning into a superstate that would throttle British identity and self-rule.

Yet the reality is very different. Neither the Ventotene meeting nor a summit of 27 EU states — minus Britain — which will take place on September 16 in Bratislava, Slovakia’s capital, is likely to agree on any measures resembling a leap towards a superstate.

Broadly speaking, there are three explanations for this. The first is that in most EU states there is at best thin public support for such far-reaching steps. As Donald Tusk, the Polish president of the European Council, which groups EU heads of government, said before the UK referendum: “We failed to notice that ordinary people, the citizens of Europe, do not share our Euro-enthusiasm.”

The second explanation is that many governments do not want such a leap, either. For example, the Netherlands adamantly opposes changes to the EU’s basic treaties of the kind necessary to make big strides towards closer integration. As for Poland, the fifth-largest EU state now that the UK is on the way out, it is pushing for the opposite: the repatriation of certain EU powers to memberstates.

The final reason is that Germany, Europe’s pivotal power, takes the view that the EU — and especially the 19-nation eurozone — has enough to contend with at the moment without setting itself unrealistically ambitious goals on European unification. In particular, the Germans think France and Italy have much to do to put their own economic houses in order.

None of this means that the EU, as a 27-nation group, is paralysed or drifting towards a break-up, as some British commentators predict. Some modest steps forwards, notably on defence and security co-operation, are conceivable over coming months.

But the political unification of Europe, as set out in the Ventotene Manifesto, is a very remote prospect indeed.