Editor’s Note: Garvan Walshe is a former policy adviser to the British Conservative Party. He is also the CEO of Brexit Analytics. The opinions in this article belong to the author.
Jean-Claude Juncker has likely been studying his Rahm Emanuel. He’s taken to heart the American political strategist’s lesson: never let a good crisis go to waste.
Stung, perhaps, after being painted by some as the man who lost Britain, the president of the European Commission has decided not to let Brexit go to waste. The list of integrationist proposals he announced during his State of the Union address on Wednesday read like a compendium of measures that Britain’s finest mandarins have spent the last 30 years blocking.
From the obvious: a Defense Union (the idea of a European Army has for some time been simultaneously feared and derided in London); to the simple: bringing all of the EU states into the euro currency and Schengen border-free area; to the divisive: increasing legal migration to the European Union, Juncker laid out an ambitious and uncompromising plan.
His is a plan that will be impossible to complete in the next two years – when his time as president of the Commission will expire – but it is a plan that, evidently, he hopes will leave an ambitious legacy for an institution which – had elections in Austria, the Netherlands and France gone only slightly differently – would now be facing a terminal crisis.
It was most clearly an attack on the idea of a “multi-speed” Europe: the originally British plan, where some countries would push ahead with political union, while an outer ring would limit themselves to economic integration.
First attempted by London when it set up the European Free Trade Association back in 1960 incorporating the Nordics, it these days finds a variant among Western Europeans who regret letting in the former Communist states of Eastern Europe. It envisions “core” (Western) Europe inside the eurozone, with the ex-Warsaw Pact nations in a looser arrangement. Without Britain however, the outer ring would feel very peripheral indeed.
Juncker’s proposals go further than France and Germany would find ideal, but if French economic reforms succeed and the idea of a eurozone finance minister gains traction, the appeal of having everyone inside the euro, sooner rather than later and therefore not having to create yet another institution, will be hard to resist. Spain – and barring a surprising revival in the fortunes of the Five Star movement and Northern League – Italy are unlikely to object.
It will be hardest for Poland, whose government Juncker targeted when he spoke in defense of the rule of law, and politically uncomfortable in the Netherlands. Compulsory Schengen membership also requires a hard border for Ireland. But since the UK will likely impose one anyway, Dublin has little to lose.
Nor is an alliance of relatively skeptical Nordic and Eastern European countries easy to imagine: Nordic skepticism has a lot to do with suspicion that Eastern states are weak when it comes to the rule of law.
Do not expect Juncker to get all his own way. The eventual outcome will be subject, as always in the EU, to thousands of compromises. But this plants a federalist pole and moves the debate about the EU’s future in the direction of integration.
Juncker couldn’t resist poking the British in the eye. In the section on Brexit, after giving his own pro-forma regrets, he couldn’t resist ad-libbing “and you’ll regret it too.” But this is not just high-level trolling, he is determined to take the EU in a direction with which the UK would be even more uncomfortable than it already is.
Britons who voted to leave the EU will feel vindicated – this is the superstate of which they never wanted to be part. While remainers will never be able to persuade the British to change their minds so much as to rejoin something for which euro membership and Schengen (even modified to allow counterterrorism security checks) were compulsory.
While there are some in Britain – perhaps most notably former Prime Minister Tony Blair – who think that Brexit can still be stopped, Juncker has today shown us the huge gaps between thinking in London and Brussels. While this may act as evidence for some that the decision to leave was the right one for Britain, it’s hard to see how negotiators preparing for another round of talks that have yet to reach a breakthrough will see anything encouraging about Juncker’s plans for the future of the Union.