Ashley Fox is an MEP for South West England, and is the leader of Britain’s Conservative MEPs.
Some things never change in Brussels. On Wednesday Guy Verhofstadt once again referenced Winston Churchill as a founding father of European integration. But then came a surprise. Jean Claude Juncker finally acknowledged there is more than one way for the European Union to develop.
The occasion was a set piece debate on the future of the EU, an issue that has occupied the Brussels bubble in recent months but has so far barely caused a ripple beyond it. At least this time we had something to get our teeth into, the European Commission’s Future of Europe White Paper, or the birth certificate of the EU27 as some are labelling it. (Read the White Paper here.)
It is a document whose creation Brexit has, if not prompted, certainly hastened. Against expectations it is a reasonable starting point. For once, President Juncker has held back from pushing his vision of a federal Europe and instead laid out a series of options for the future of the EU.
He has clearly grown tired of the Commission being blamed for all the EU’s failings and decided to hand responsibility for what happens next to the Member States, even if the document makes it perfectly clear which proposal he prefers.
The five options to be debated over the coming months range from stripping the EU back to its single most successful policy – the single market – right the way through to much greater integration, a scenario under which Brussels would speak for Europe on foreign policy and trade and raise its own taxes. Interestingly, in a rare piece of self-awareness, the Commission admits this latter route “risks alienating parts of society which feel that the EU lacks legitimacy.”
In between are choices labelled “Carrying On”, which translates as do nothing and ignore the crises that threaten to engulf the EU; “Those Who Want To Do More”, shorthand for a multi-speed Europe in which Member States would choose how far they wanted to participate in common policies covering areas such as defence, taxation and social issues; and “Doing Less More Efficiently”.
As the UK is leaving, the remaining 27 Member States must decide their own future. However, it is in the UK’s interest for the EU to be a successful, stable and well-run partner and ally. So as long as Conservative MEPs remain in Brussels we will work alongside our colleagues in the European Conservatives and Reformists Group to push for solutions which we believe will leave the Union best placed to meet the challenges of the future.
Spelling out the options is the easy part. The debate which followed the unveiling of the White Paper illustrated how difficult it will be to settle on a future course. Reactions ranged from predictions that the EU was doomed to calls for a “high speed Europe not a two speed Europe”. Some criticised Juncker for providing any choices at all, claiming it displayed a lack of leadership.
Verhofstadt was entirely predictable. As well as calling on the spirit of Churchill to justify his arch-federalist views, he blamed the problems of the EU on its lack of powers. In his world there is just one answer to every question: more Europe.
I sincerely hope that discussion on the White Paper leads to genuine progress. Most importantly, sufficient note must be taken of the clamour for change coming from people across Europe who have lost confidence in the EU as it is currently structured.
If they are ignored, this root and branch review is doomed to fail.