European Council on February 18, 2016 /

The threat of leaving the EU is mentioned just too often and the combination with “exit” becoming somehow even fashionable. First a possible Grexit, now the Brexit. Will we soon also talk about a Frexit or Czexit?

At the last EU summit, the United Kingdom (UK) reached an agreement on changing the terms of its membership with the EU. Will other EU member states follow suit?

It is yet to be seen whether the agreement between London and Brussels will really influence the decision of the British vote. But if the Yes in the June referendum really wins, other countries may want to take advantage of the special treatment that London got.

Even though the agreement is tailored to the needs of the UK, it may still seem attractive for eurosceptics in other member states.
Professor Richard Whitman, who cooperates with the British policy institute Chatham House, believes that the promise of changing the terms of Britain’s EU membership is a dangerous precedent.

However, Whitman admits that there have been several precedent cases before. For example Denmark, which was exempted from the EU’s defense policy, or the UK from domestic and justice policy. But it has always been underlined that these countries could join the mainstream whenever they choose. But now it’s different.

“What we excepted now is that there can be a different category of membership for a country, which means that when you find an issue which is difficult, national and domestic, I think there might be a temptation for a government to say: ‘We want the national peculiarity to be taken into account in a way that represents a sort of distinctive arrangement for us within the EU,’” Whitman said.

What country could follow Great Britain next?

For instance France. The National Front under the leadership of Marine Le Pen has already announced it would stand up and fight for French interests in the EU. And Le Pen has big chances in the presidential elections next year, which could trigger a domino effect.

The Brexit may set an example for the “Franxit” or “Frexit” – both versions are gaining ground in the public mind.

“We will demand special terms as Great Britain did,” say the French eurosceptics. What can FN ask for?

Marine le Pen at plenary session in Strasbourg in July 2015 / European Union 2015 - EP/PE

Le Pen is looking forward to the French presidential elections next year

It may, for example, demand the withdrawal of the budgetary discipline imposed on France by the EU to bolster economic reforms and cut spending. Since the National Front does not hide its hostile attitude towards immigrants and refugees and wants to close the French borders, Paris may also ask for more sovereignty in immigration issues.

If Brussels does not agree to pass on to France more sovereignty in border protection or budget policy, the FN is likely to organize a referendum on leaving the EU.
This kind of political blackmail may even be effective and Brussels’ influence on member states is limited, comments Agata Gostyńska-Jakubowska, an expert of the Centre for European Reform, a think-tank devoted to improving the quality of the debate on the EU. (audio in Polish)

“Of course, we should take into consideration the political meaning of Great Britain. I find it difficult to imagine that all member states could put forward such a list of demands. Undoubtedly it is a signal for populist groups in other member states that they can try to change the terms of their membership,” Gostyńska-Jakubowska said.

And during the negotiations at the recent EU summit about the UK and the referendum, some countries indeed tried to grab the chance to push through their own interests. But the head of the European Council, the Pole Donald Tusk, put an end to such attempts.

European Council on February 18-19, 2016 /

Cameron and Tusk discussing shared decision-making and equal treatment

Gostyńska-Jakubowska says only big countries with big influence could hope for special treatment. The threat of them leaving the EU could prompt the EU to make concessions, as happened with the UK.

But the threat, for instance, of a Czexit is unlikely to cause such drastic concessions, even though the Czech Prime Minister Boguslav Sobotka recently mentioned that the Czech Republic could follow in the footsteps of the UK.

“There is a probability bordering on certainty that if Great Britain leaves the EU, the eurosceptic Czech Republic may follow its example,” Sobotka said.

The Brussels correspondent of the public Czech radio, Ondrej Houska, believes that such a breakaway is not going to happen in his country, but acknowledges that the mood towards the EU could be better in the Czech Republic.

“It is a fact that recently the mood towards the European integration has very much worsened in the Czech Republic. And it is obviously a thing to do with the refugee crisis. If you see public surveys, you will find that the results are sometimes insane. The Czechs would be happy to abandon Schengen for the sake of not having a single refugee and the mood has changed considerably,” Houska said.

Two-speed Europe?

It is nearly certain that the mood in the EU and the relationships between member states leave a lot to desire. And the immigration crisis has added fuel to the fire. Is there yet a will among the EU member states for shared decision-making and equal treatment?

Many experts are alarming about how the interests and opinions of some “lesser” countries are not really taken into consideration. For example, when the decision was taken to impose a mandatory refugee quota on EU member states.

Some say that various different interest groups have emerged. And the agreement between the UK and the EU confirms that there is a division between the EU countries, but not a two-speed Europe division, Gostyńska-Jakubowska underlined. (audio in Polish)

“It is difficult to speak about a two-speed Europe because this concept implies that all countries are heading in the same direction, but pedaling with different speeds. However, for many years, Great Britain has enjoyed a special status within the EU. It is a sort of consequence of the EU politics which strengthens the trend, which in my opinion sometimes poses a threat to diverse integration, i.e. some countries, usually the eurozone countries, will strengthen their cooperation without taking into account the peripherals of the EU,” Gostyńska-Jakubowska said.

The EU is on the cusp of political and economic disintegration and has to wage a war on several fronts – not only does it struggle with its internal problems, it also has to face problems hailing from outside. And the migration crisis has mercilessly exposed the EU’s general weaknesses.

  • Authors: Ewa Stankiewicz und Beata Płomecka, Polskie Radio
  • Further image credits: (middle 1&3) European Council on February 18-19, 2016 / | (middle 2) Marine le Pen at plenary session in  Strasbourg in July 2015 / European Union 2015 – EP/PE 

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Last week, the British Prime Minister David Cameron claimed a diplomatic victory on the issue of curbing social benefits for foreign workers, which was the biggest challenge of the recent EU summit. Cameron might be right, since other countries already said they were interested.

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