BRUSSELS – The European Union has known some crises in its time: the constitution that never was, impossible budget deals, debt devastating the Greek economy and threatening the euro currency, strife as nations failed to manage the continent’s refugee emergency together.
But Brexit — a British exit from the 28-nation union — is the EU’s biggest crisis so far. No country has ever left before.
Despite some speed bumps, the EU has grown from the six nations that founded a coal and steel community in 1951 to a half-billion strong trading bloc when Croatia signed up three years ago.
Now that the British decision is winding back more than 60 years of EU integration, no one knows exactly how to pick up the pieces and move on. Should the EU do more or less? How should it interest people in a project that seems distant and difficult to understand? And is the bloc even to blame for this crisis when many simply aren’t happy with their own governments, let alone distant Brussels?
In the background, Greece feels marginalized as its people suffer under tough reform policies imposed by creditors to save its debt-wracked economy. Italy is bickering with Germany over whether that austerity is really necessary. And the Hungarians are going to hold a referendum on refugee quotas.
This is what European political limbo looks like.
While heads have rolled in Britain, where Prime Minister David Cameron has resigned and the three leading figures of the “leave” campaign tumbled or quit, no one is stepping down in Brussels. With the July-August summer recess closing in, everyone is hunkering down and looking toward a summit of EU leaders in Bratislava on Sept. 16 to see what can be done.
The president of the EU’s sprawling executive body — which over the years has proposed thousands of pieces of legislation that impact how citizens live, study, travel or do business — has been an early target for critics. Jean-Claude Juncker leads an administration of some 33,000 people. He and his policy commissioners are routinely portrayed as the embodiment of the unelected bureaucrat, imposing inane, invasive laws on ordinary citizens.
Certainly many in Britain see it that way, even if most proposals are debated between member countries and the European Parliament – whose members are elected every five years – before they become law.
Yet Juncker, barely two years in office on a mandate to reform, is not going to fall on his sword.
“I refuse to allow the commission to be blamed for the outcome of the British referendum. We will not bare that responsibility,” he told EU lawmakers Tuesday. “I haven’t said that we want a ‘United States’ of Europe.”
He said the Commission was endorsed by all member nations, including the departing Britain.
“This is a commission with a mandate to reform and we are doing that,” Juncker said. “It has not overnight lost its legitimacy.”
The 61-year-old former Luxembourg premier, one of Europe’s longest serving leaders, also makes an easy target amid rumours that he’s not well. His employees deny this.
Meanwhile the EU’s newest member countries — many from Central and Eastern Europe and which joined together in 2004 — feel they have been sidelined for far too long. They think European heavyweights like Germany and France and soulless EU institutions have been dictating to them, in particular by imposing refugee quotas that they voted against.
They argue that the British referendum on June 23, which was influenced by concerns about migration and national sovereignty, is a wake-up call for EU nations to reclaim their own powers.
“It is necessary to make reforms that will reach the founding treaties implemented within the European Union,” Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico said on July 2, ushering in his right-leaning government’s six-month presidency of the EU.
“I reject the claim that everything is perfect and fine and that we shouldn’t touch anything,” he said.
Easier said than done. The Treaty of Lisbon, which took effect in 2009, was drawn up after years of reflection involving all member countries, experts and civil society. Changing it would take years more. In February, pressed by Britain, other EU nations refused to revisit the treaty to try to persuade the U.K. to stay.
Germany, the EU’s driving power, says now is the time for cool heads, not knee-jerk reactions.
“In this first phase after the British referendum, it is not about discussing structural questions or more or less Europe — it is about having very concrete thoughts on all European levels, in the institutions and in the member states, about how we can create a successful and effective Europe,” said German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman, Steffen Seibert.
He said Germany would do all it can not to “strengthen centrifugal forces” pulling the EU apart.
“Now is the time for pragmatism,” German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble told the Welt am Sonntag newspaper. “If all 27 don’t pull together from the beginning, then a few can start.”
It would not be the first time. While the EU has 28 members, some nations have chosen to integrate more deeply in smaller groups. Nineteen use the shared euro currency. Twenty-six are in the passport-free Schengen travel area — including four non-EU countries — and 10 nations co-operate on a financial transactions tax.
But as the EU looks inward for answers, disenchantment with national governments has prompted all sorts of European voters to turn to the far right or left.
“People are anxious and insecure, because in just a few decades the world has changed beyond recognition. Globalization, the digital revolution and urbanization have radically changed the way we live, while our communities have become much more diverse,” Dutch EU lawmaker Sophie In’t Veld said.
“It is a mistake to think we can weaken the anti-EU populists by weakening the EU. We have to make the EU stronger, more democratic and accountable, and more able to act and address the big challenges of today,” she said.
Geir Moulson and Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed.