Europe must move on.

Photographer: Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

It's Time for Europeans to Take a Stand

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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"Please tell me I'm still sleeping and this is all just a bad nightmare," former Finnish Prime Minister Alexander Stubb tweeted after waking up to the U.K. referendum results. It feels like a betrayal, but it's really a wake-up call. The millions of Britons who on Thursday voted their distrust of the European Union are not the only Europeans who feel that way. The EU must rethink itself or perish.

QuickTake Britain Voted to Leave the EU

One can imagine the EU trying to proceed with business as usual. The Brexit negotiations are supposed to go on for years, and who knows what surprises the U.K.'s tumultuous politics may yet serve up. On the eve of the Brexit vote, the bloc intended to reopen membership talks with Turkey in a few days, as previously planned. And Slovakia, which assumes the rotating EU presidency on July 1, announced it wanted to "open a debate on fiscal integration." 

The EU has schedules, programs, road maps and ongoing projects -- life can go on as if Britain had never put the bloc's existence into question. To an extent, it probably will. The U.K. was not one of the union's six founding countries, and, while it has been an important, mainly dissenting voice, Britain is not a pillar of the EU. There's nothing in EU documents to suggest that a member's departure should lead to an existential crisis.

Inertia can be soothing, yet the EU must now be "refounded" -- not just to prevent a domino effect, with euroskeptics from the Netherlands to Greece pushing for more exists, but to show the rest of the Europeans something the English failed to understand: that it's really better together than apart. Europe's voters need to see why they need the bureaucratic beehive in Brussels to keep buzzing.

That's clear to some European leaders. Even before the Brexit vote, Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel proposed an emergency summit after the referendum, arguing that whatever its results, Europe would be changed. It was time to make clear, he said, "what kind of European project we want in the future. It should be a European project with tangible benefits for citizens." After the referendum results came in, Manfred Weber, a parliament member from Chancellor Angela Merkel's party, Christian Democratic Union, echoed the sentiment: "We want a better and smarter Europe. We have to convince the people and bring Europe back to them."

How does one do that, though, especially with Britain's divorce sure to be a major distraction? Some suggestions have been made, but the variance is wide.

Last month, Pope Francis gave a powerful speech on his vision for Europe. The continent, he said, should go back to the vision of the union's founding fathers, who healed Europe after World War II. "That vision urges us not to be content with cosmetic retouches or convoluted compromises aimed at correcting this or that treaty, but courageously to lay new and solid foundations," the Pope said. His message -- better care for the poor, the elderly and the young, and a welcome to immigrants -- appears increasingly at odds with the public mood, thanks to the Brexit campaign and to German Chancellor Angela Merkel's fumbles since she extended such a welcome last year.

The Pope's approach contrasts with other ideas -- such as those of former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, who proposes that the Schengen free-travel zone be governed by a council of interior ministers, which would control a border police force. Sarkozy would even ban the free movement of non-EU nationals within the Schengen area. He also supports the devolution of some EU powers back to member states, creating a less close union but with better-protected borders.

There is a huge distance between these two "refoundation" visions, and plenty of other ideas fit into that space, from a comprehensive review of all EU regulations to the issue of common "growth bonds" to finance investment programs.

No emergency summit could possibly address all these reform plans, and any such meeting carries the risk of getting bogged down in disputes about the immediate crises, Brexit foremost among them. EU leaders need to step back from these and look at the bloc's entire construction. 

Clearly defining the starting positions would be a good beginning. Is Brexit an opportunity to move more decisively toward a closer union, as former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt has been arguing? Should the EU, having lost one of its Westernmost member states, expand eastward, drawing in Turkey? What about former Yugoslav states? Ukraine? Would the leaders of the remaining EU states like a fiscal union? Would they agree to the idea of a joint intelligence service? A joint border service? A bigger common budget or a smaller one? A common immigration policy? Should government functions be handed back to nation states and if so, which ones? What kind of timing would work for each of these issues?

This is not the time to take a fudge for an answer. The EU has been justly criticized for opacity, and it can't be saved behind closed doors because its problem is, basically, with voters. The answers should be made public so that leaders bear electoral responsibility for them. To quote Fran Burwell, the Atlantic Council's vice president for EU issues,

Member states need to stop blaming Brussels for everything. They go to Brussels knowing that they have to make decisions on hard issues, but they don’t want to take the political costs themselves and so they blame Brussels, just as we in the United States often blame Washington, only perhaps a bit more so. The public needs to understand that Brussels is not some foreign place, but rather a place where their government works with others to make decisions.

It's convenient to use the EU as a lightning rod for voter anger. U.K. politicians may have taken it a little too far, which won't make their tactics any less popular in other countries. Responsible leaders, however, must declare unequivocally to what extent they are willing to participate in a confederation, which elements of it they're ready to accept and negotiate with others. 

It may turn out that more countries are like the U.K. -- that they need important exceptions from the Lisbon Treaty framework, the Schengen free movement rules, the common labor market, the euro; more countries may ultimately want out, and that shouldn't be treated as a tragedy or an impossibility. These countries should be allowed their exceptions. A closer union is not a burdensome obligation to be taken on in exchange for trade benefits, the way it is often presented today. It's a voluntary decision that should be taken on its own merits.

As long as there is a small core of countries willing to go the whole hog -- that is, move toward a version of the United States of Europe -- the European dream will be alive. Others can content themselves with free-trade and watch the experiment from the sidelines or join once they are ready. Even the U.K. -- or parts of it -- may eventually want to come back.

This is a time to take stock, revisit old agreements, recommit or step aside. Brexit has left deep cracks in the union; they can't be painted over, and some of them may lead to further splintering -- but this is not the end for the EU. Hopefully, a new beginning.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net