It's Mad Hatter’s Tea Party time in the EU.
Having failed to engage constructively with David Cameron’s bid to reform the EU’s rules, and having convulsed with shock at the UK’s ultimate decision to leave, it seemed this week that Europe’s leaders were actually inviting us back into the club – with Emmanuel Macron telling Theresa May on Tuesday that “there is always a chance to reopen the door”. The new French President was echoing Germany’s finance minister, who had said much the same thing. But not so fast. Guy Verhofstadt, a leading MEP and top eurocrat, is defiant that “like Alice in Wonderland, not all the doors are the same”. If Britain were to return to the EU, he said, it would find a “united Europe with real powers”, and none of the rebates and perks that the UK has so far enjoyed.
Some EU leaders and officials are taking Brexit (and the disarray in Britain caused by last week’s election) as a sign that what the bloc really needs is further, deeper integration. This would be a step backwards. In February, there was talk of some member states (led by Italy, France and Germany) forming a core inner bloc and transitioning towards a two-speed EU, with deeper integration for those that want it and a more flexible customs union for those that don’t. Clearly the victory of the europhilic Macron in France and Theresa May’s demise in the polls has provided an excuse for ardent eurocrats to drown out moderate voices and proceed towards a federalist Europe.
But is that really the best way forward? Regardless of how much the UK is made to “suffer” for Brexit, the tensions between and within member states have gone nowhere. Marine Le Pen may have been vanquished last month, but her anti-EU platform still won her 35 per cent of the vote. The Greek debt crisis is threatening to rear one of its many ugly heads again, the anti-EU Podemos party in Spain is causing trouble for the minority government, and Italy’s banks are on the brink of collapse. And while closer integration may be the fantasy of people like Verhofstadt, it certainly isn’t for the Visegrad group of eastern European countries, whose leaders are not exactly sold on the EU’s strategy for dealing with refugees or its drive to export liberal cultural values. When one considers the problems currently facing the EU, “more Europe” does not seem to be the answer to any of them.
If the EU is Wonderland, Verhofstadt may well find that his efforts – just like Alice’s – have the opposite effect to the one he so desires.