Looking for the silver lining

There is the universe we used to live in. Then there is the one that Donald Trump is fast creating. The one where anything goes.

Where the president of the United States can set himself above the law and the basic principles of good governance and common decency with frightening ease.

There is often a silver lining to be found even in the darkest cloud; there is one here too.

The far right populists in Europe thought to use Donald Trump as a stepping stone to bigger wins. They ended up with a giant stumbling block instead.

As it turned out, my blog Oops, EUps was not just wishful thinking. The dark horse, Emmanuel Macron, galloped all the way to win the French presidential election, leaving a frustrated Marine Le Pen far behind.

In addition, the Dutch elections were a disappointment to Geert Wilders and his right wing populists.

Despite this, there is no reason to get comfortable. The Dutch and French elections were battles. The “war” against right wing nationalism and bigotry has yet to be won.

There is a clear call for change within the European Union. The problem is that each member country has its own vision of what that change should include.

For some it’s deeper integration, for others it’s a less bureaucratic, more flexible European Union with no new financial burdens added to the mix. Then there are those for whom it’s all about more subsidies and loans.

On top of it all, the member countries have their own internal battles to fight. Everything from cries for independence (as in the case of Spain and Catalonia), to the growing divide between liberal big cities and more conservative rural areas, and the rise of far right nationalism.

There are so many wishes and so many doubts. The populists may not have won the latest battles, but the underlying differences and fears are still there.

We have come a long way from the times of the European Coal and Steel community to today’s European Union. From 6 member countries in the 1950’s to 9  in the 70’s, 12 in the 80’s and 15 in the 90’s.

Should we have stopped there? Fifteen is a good number according to Dunbar. When you jump up to 28 (or 27 after Brexit) as the EU did between 2004-2013, you might as well do 50.

Okay, Dunbar refers to what he likes to call meaningful relationships between people, not between member countries. Then again, running something as complicated as the EU takes good relationships between those in charge.

Less (i.e. fewer member countries) would probably have been more in terms of understanding and trust.

Of the soon to be 27 member countries, 19 are Eurozone countries. The euro currency was seen as a means to strengthen the unity of the EU. It did so, initially. But it also created unforeseen problems that divide – rather than unite – more and more.

It doesn’t really take rocket science to understand that deeper integration will not work with 27 countries in the mix; countries with very different historical backgrounds, cultures, languages and economies. Countries with no clear, internally shared commitment to a more deeply integrated EU.

Which brings me to Brexit. There is a silver lining to Brexit too. It pushes the EU to act.

The Brexit process is like any divorce. The parties are angry and hurt. Both sides are wallowing in what the other party did wrong.

The party that took the initiative to split is painting its partner in the darkest possible colours, while the one left holding up the home fort is promising to make the split as painful as possible.

Most of the kids, i.e. the smaller EU countries, don’t really want to take sides that strongly. From their point of view an amicable divorce might be best for all.

Some even think that the divorce may well be a blessing in disguise. That the family was dysfunctional, and something had to give.

Most of the family friends don’t want to take sides. They just want to go on with their relationships with both parties if possible. If not, they will have to choose.

The EU has to do better than a revenge-minded spouse, but that’s not to say that Theresa May’s unrealistic wishful thinking should be catered to.

I am not offering up a unique pearl of wisdom here. Many have come to the same conclusion.

But they tend to talk of Brexit and the future of the European Union as two different issues. To me they there can be no successful Brexit without a joint understanding of what the future of the EU should look like.

It is time to decide what the EU is to become. There is no time for wait and see.

If Brexit is made easy, others may follow. If it is made too difficult, the EU may later end up with unhappy hostages that fight every issue unless they are bribed to stay calm.

If the EU is looking for deeper integration, it has to have a fair mechanism for those who wish to opt out of this process.

There are member countries that have no chance of getting internal backing for deeper integration. To force them along would only hold the EU back. Even worse, it would feed right wing nationalism more than anything.

Personally, I think that it would be a grave mistake to drive member countries to a point where they are forced to vote internally on whether to leave the EU or not.

As Brexit proved, the fact that a Polish plumber just took your spot on the construction team was easy to understand. The whys and hows of the downsides of Brexit were not.

It is time to stop talking about deeper integration, and work with what is doable.

In addition to other internal problems, the EU is facing the challenge of integrating an increasing number of refugees.

Financial sacrifices have to be made in the name of human rights. But they can only be made if there is enough internal backing in the member countries. If not, the backlash will throw out the baby with the bath water as the saying goes.

Not necessarily because of racism or an unwillingness to share. In some cases it’s just as much about fear and insecurity. Fear of the unknown.

A fear that far right populists exploit to the fullest.

This is the main challenge EU faces going forward. It is not an easy task to sell the free movement of people, goods, services, and capital, as well as the sharing of financial burdens (including those related to refugees), to a heterogeneous set of member countries that face complex political and economic challenges internally.

Some even say it’s impossible in an environment where too many are out of work and chance terrorist attacks abound. There is too much room to play on people’s fear.

Change  is easy to talk about and difficult to implement. Especially if it involves negative consequences for one or more parties.

Macron won with an agenda of hope and ideals. Sometimes hope and ideals make all the difference; for the better, if paired with enough realism.

I hope Merkel (not Schulz, now is not the time for dramatic posturing) and Macron both get a clear backing in their respective upcoming elections. They will need it.

They are about to make history in one way or another. As the ones who acted in time to save the EU –  or as the ones that didn’t.