“Deal. Unanimous support for new settlement for #UKinEU” twitted European Council President Donald Tusk in the evening of 19 February, when the leaders of the EU agreed to a number of concessions in the hope of keeping the UK in the Union. Prime Minister Cameron immediately expressed his satisfaction and his determination to work for a Yes vote in the UK in/out of the EU referendum now scheduled for 23 June 2016.
Victory, therefore, for unity and solidarity among the EU’s leaders and nations? Another glorious day in Europe’s post-World War II history? If only things were as simple…
The deal reached on 19 February is a victory for the UK Prime Minister, who got a lot of what he had wanted – from limitations to benefits of non-British EU nationals working in the UK, to preserving the prerogatives of the City of London, to excluding the UK from the “ever closer union” principle of deepening European integration – while maintaining the benefits of the 500-million single market. All in all, a “special status” for the UK, keeping it within the EU but allowing it to continue with its old ways of balancing other powers against each other to its economic and political advantage, without offering long-term loyalty and commitment to anyone (see also our Viral Europe video as a satirical testimony to this).
Of course, the UK-EU deal will apply only if UK citizens approve it and agree to stay in the EU through a majority Yes vote in the June referendum. Judging by the polls and the mobilization on both sides it is still very much unclear which way it will go. EU citizens in other countries have no say on the special deal offered to the UK, by the way, but that is another long discussion that may be taken up when another country tries to assert its “special status”.
For now, the best-case scenario for those still believing in the European Project would be for Britain to remain in the EU. Of course, this will be a weakened EU, where not all countries are equal in their obligations, where the euro co-exists in perpetuity with the pound sterling, and where everything continues to be ultimately decided upon by national leaders through negotiations on the basis of national interests. This will keep in a state of permanent underdevelopment the notion of a common European interest and bold initiatives like a real common foreign and defence policy, common borders and migration policy, fiscal integration and a social Europe.
Or will it? Perhaps the time has come for those who still believe in the European ideal and an ever-closer union to make the leap of faith and start implementing it decisively in practice. It could be the six countries that founded the EU, the foreign ministers of which recently met in Italy, or the 19 countries of the Eurozone, or some other combination of EU members, who will decide to go forward, within the EU but also beyond it. That would require new treaties, a constitution in fact, new institutions and leaders with a pan-European mind frame and appeal. But it may be the only way to go beyond the post-UK-deal single market to a political entity that can really shape and not just be shaped by developments, really compete in a world of increasingly continental-size powers, really inspire and release the creative potential of its citizens.