Brexit Aftershocks An Inside Look at the EU's Raging Power Struggle

European leaders at the post Brexit summit earlier this week

European leaders at the post Brexit summit earlier this week

Part 2: 'You're Lying to Us!'

On Monday, Merkel and Holland meet together in the Chancellery in Berlin along with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. Their contrasting approaches to Brexit come up and, in the end, they reach a compromise: Proposals for further EU development in the areas of security, employment, youth and euro-zone cooperation should be presented by September, it says in their joint statement. The hope is that the plan will at least get them through the next several weeks.

When Merkel delivers her government statement to German parliament on Tuesday morning just before the beginning of the EU summit, her tone regarding how the UK should be approached is a bit more severe than in the preceding days. She emphasizes that there can be no secret negotiations with the British before the country officially applies for withdrawal and that London will not be allowed to "cherry pick." She remains true, however, to her utmost concern: that of giving Britain as much time as possible.

It has become apparent in Brussels too just how vigorously the battle is being fought between those who envision a more powerful EU and those in favor of a nation state-led Europe. The front leads through all countries and all parties. At 8:30 p.m., German members of the European People's Party -- the center-right group in European Parliament -- meet. The discussion is focused on the resolution to be passed by European Parliament on Brexit and the atmosphere is heated.

Protesters at an anti-Brexit demonstration in London this week
Getty Images

Protesters at an anti-Brexit demonstration in London this week

Herbert Reul, head of the German group, laments that the draft resolution was produced only by a small group under the leadership of Schulz and CDU member Elmar Brok. Brok is part of the EU establishment and has for decades been a proponent of taking advantage of EU crises to deepen European integration. Meeting participants complain that now is not the time for a new convention to pave the way for deeper European unity.

There is nothing about a new convention in the paper, Brok objects. "But it does mention treaty amendments," says CSU member Markus Ferber, and to make such changes, he adds, a convention is necessary. "You're only telling us half of the story," Ferber fulminates. "You're lying to us!"

On Tuesday evening, EU heads of state and government come together for what could be their last supper together with Cameron. On the following morning, they make clear to Juncker that they will be taking the lead in the exit negotiations with Britain. "But that is the Commission's responsibility," Juncker protests. "Jean-Claude, we have been elected, you haven't been," is the rejoinder from several prime ministers and heads of state.

Waiting Calmly

It's the age-old European battle over who possesses the greatest amount of democratic legitimacy -- and for the moment it doesn't look like momentum is in favor of Juncker's Commission and his partner Schulz's European Parliament.

Europe's government leaders agree on Wednesday that no changes should be made to European treaties and that there definitely should not be a convention. There also won't be any fundamental modifications made to the EU and no deepening of integration. "It is not the time for such things," says Merkel. It looks as though she has won this battle with the Schulz-Juncker tandem and that the concept of Europe as a collection of nation states has won this round.

The severe treatment of Britain demanded by some will also not be pursued initially. Instead, the EU will calmly wait, at least until September, to see how the situation in London develops. Europe is pausing for reflection instead of rushing to implement greater integration.

There remains, however, plenty of room for compromise. Jaroslaw Kaczynski, head of Poland's national-conservative Law and Justice party, which currently holds power in the country, doesn't want "less Europe" in all areas. When it comes to foreign and security policy, he would even like to see the EU play a more robust role. Kaczynski is in favor of the establishment of a European army and would like to see a strong European president with far-reaching authority. It is a demand that many governments in eastern and central Europe agree with.

By contrast, left-leaning governments, primarily in southern Europe, would like to see greater public investment. One idea to promote such investment envisions the establishment of a euro-zone budget, which would automatically grant greater powers to the Commission and the European Parliament, because such a budget would have to be managed and be subjected to parliamentary controls.

Finally, the refugee crisis has produced a third group with shared interests: Countries like Sweden and Germany took in a huge number of refugees in 2015 and are demanding the establishment of a joint asylum system, including the fair distribution of refugees throughout the EU. This too would essentially result in "more Europe."

An Irascible Juncker

It is true that people in almost all member states have become more skeptical of the EU. But it is also true that this skepticism has a variety of vastly different causes. If every EU member were prepared to make concessions to the concerns of others, everyone could emerge better off.

In mid-September, EU heads of state and government are to meet in Bratislava to consider what the EU's future priorities will be. Slovakia will hold the rotating EU presidency and the country's prime minister, Robert Fico, is a proponent of an EU made up of strong nation states, much like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. He promises to be Juncker's next difficult adversary, although it looks as though the new situation in Europe has already left its mark on the European Commission president.

Wherever he makes an appearance these days, he seems to be under stress. The jocularity and nonchalance he otherwise exudes has vanished. Juncker these days is ill-tempered and irascible.

After the summit comes to an end, a reporter from Austrian public broadcaster ORF becomes the focus of his frustration. She asks a question about CETA, the already negotiated free-trade agreement with Canada. The day before, Juncker has told European leaders that he would like to enact the treaty without the involvement of national parliaments in EU member states -- thus feeding into all the stereotypes out there of an autocratic, elitist Brussels.

From a purely legal point of view, Juncker's approach is defensible, but the timing shows a stunning degree of tone deafness. He "doesn't really care," he answers in response to the ORF reporter's question about the treaty's legal character. "Stop with this Austrian fuss. As if I would take aim at Austrian democracy."

His friend Martin Schulz appears more philosophical about the backlash against his vision of Europe. On Wednesday afternoon, right after EU member state leaders left Brussels following the summit, he allows himself a moment to catch his breath. He is sitting in a black leather armchair in his office on the ninth floor of the enormous European Parliament building in Brussels. On a pedestal behind him are an EU flag and a statue of Willy Brandt.

In reference to Brexit, he quotes George Bernard Shaw: "Old men are dangerous: It doesn't matter to them what is going to happen to the world." He then addresses the Euroskepticism that he and Juncker have been confronted with in recent days. It doesn't faze him, he says. He was first elected to European Parliament 22 years ago, Schulz continues. Now, the EU is stumbling from crisis to crisis and he is supposed to refrain from thinking about Europe's future? Schulz finds the idea absurd. "Everyone always asks: Where are the visions for Europe? And then when you present one, you are told: Now isn't the time. So which is it?"

By Markus Feldenkirchen, Julia Amalia Heyer, Peter Müller, Ralf Neukirch, Christoph Pauly, Jan Puhl, Christian Reiermann and Christoph Schult


Discuss this issue with other readers!
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dtechba 07/01/2016
1. Delusions of grandeur
Juncker appears to want to be the king of Europe.
samandeep_singh 07/01/2016
2. Consequences of Brexit
I sincerely hope that the rest of Europe holds its collective nerve and resists the nationalistic pressures in some member states. The EU offers a good opportunity to impose needed regulation of tax avoiding corporations and to protect workers from the worst excesses of competition China etc. The one lesson the leaders of member states need to learn is to take responsibility for nation state decisions. Using the EU as the fall guy for bad policies undermines support for the institution best able to deliver stability. Britain will suffer without a touch stance from the French - if it does not then there is good reason to question the union. If Britain stands only by increasing inequality and cutting state funding the French will have clear evidence that life is harder out of the EU. Hold your nerve! Almost half of those that voted did not want to leave: many were swayed by lies and carried along by the negative sentiment. For the good of European prosperity and peace I hope the nations with sceptics win the battle.
dan.oconnor01 07/01/2016
3. The EU's endless power struggles
What a circus! And how ludicrous that any European nation's future should rest in the hands of these grubby little EU Napoleons. Despite the hysterical scaremongering from the British and European political elite, is it any wonder that the Brits voted to quit this failing political and economic bearpit?
broremann 07/01/2016
4. Brexit
Excellent analyse of the situation, I had foreseen a federated Europe without Britain or should i say the Anglo-Saxon as I see them too close to the USA and is eager to bet on two horses gamblers as they are. what was forgotten here by all was the working class especially in the de- industrialised parts both in England and on the continent they may be uneducated end read the wrong papers, but their anger of being neglected was real. It will be interesting to see how this story ends. PS Paris would like to have financial hub in London transferred to them, but I think not
article50 07/01/2016
5. Uk
We are sorry to leave the eu but we cannot continue with this silly organisation and we are sorry that Germany must suffer the french
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