Is the EU shooting itself in the foot with Brexit negotiations?

Olivia Rohll

Just over five months on from the UK’s vote to leave the European Union on the 23rd of June 2016, there seems to have been almost no progress on what a post-EU Britain will look like. This is partly because of domestic disagreement - the Economist recently reported an almost perfect 50:50 split of opinion over the key free trade/free movement trade-off in the Brexit negotiations - but also because of the reactions of EU leaders nervous of right wing populism in their own backyards. The situation appears at times to have reached a total stalemate which only the goodwill of the negotiators can dissipate. Unfortunately for Theresa May the inner insecurity about the EU aroused across the bloc by Brexit has made goodwill hard to come by because an easy exit for the UK would encourage others to follow suit. 


However the resistance by French President François Hollande and, more recently Germanfinance minister Wolfgang Schäuble is unlikely to achieve the neutralisation of anti-EU sentiment they seek. Even among ‘Remain’ voters in the UK, the hostility sensed behind statements that the UK could face EU budget commitments up to 2030 and the like, have stirred up the feeling that Brussels has ambitions that override the sovereignty of EU member states. Britain has become a hazard to ‘The Project’ and is being punished for it - not a sight that is likely to appease nationalists. What is more, seeing leaders scrabbling to maintain their positions at the expense of their allies will do nothing to dispel feeling that the world is being run by a small group of elites uninterested in the concerns of the ‘everyday man’. Elitism even seems to be being felt at the state level, with Italy threatening to veto the EU budget due to what they see as a lack of support from EU countries with handling asylum seekers and immigrants. This is no doubt partly a political move by prime-minister Matteo Renzi, who is currently facing a referendum which, like the Brexit vote, is becoming as much about anti-establishment feeling as the constitutional reform it proposes. However the almost childish move to veto the budget also reflects the power imbalance between members which EU leaders like Renzi are finally pushing back against. The upshot is that whatever strategy European governments employ to handle Brexit they are eventually going to have to face internal unease about the EU face on, both at a domestic and national level. An easy Brexit may well encourage further departures, but throwing up barriers simply demonstrates the qualities of the European Union its people are coming to resent. 


The possibility of closer ties between the UK and US since the election of Donald Trump will do nothing to lower the tension. A British-American trade deal, although far from certain, would substantially strengthen the UK in the face of a weakened post-Brexit economy. Trump’s protectionism could well lead to complete abandonment of the work done towards a US-EU free trade deal, and his open enthusiasm for Brexit only adds insult to injury. While the scrapping of what has now been several years of complex negotiations would be an understandable blow for Brussels, failure must not be pinned on Trump or Brexit. At the end of August 2016 European politicians such as French Trade Minister Matthias Fekl began calling for the end of EU-US negotiations because of unmeetable demands from the Americans. In light of the possibility that the proposed deal was never going to come into fruition it is just worth wondering whether Angela Merkel’s calls on Trump not to give up on the deal would be as forthcoming if it weren’t for the remote possibility that the UK might get there first. 


The worrying possibility that the EU is being held together more because it is uncomfortable to leave, than because it is an attractive group to be in has not gone completely unnoticed however. As recently as 16th November, ex-French President Nicolas Sarkozy, writing in the Financial Times has stated ‘the rift between Europe and its citizens is wider than ever before.’ He recognises the legitimacy of the concerns of British people and extends the hope that they may choose to rejoin the Union once it has been reformed to better serve its members. The refreshing sentiment that rejoining the EU is an option for Britain also makes a welcome change from the finality Brexit is generally spoken about with. Before being defeated in the French primaries on 20th November, Sarkozy was seeking the Republicans’ (‘Les Républicains’) nomination for the 2017 French presidential election and was clearly hoping that EU reform might attract voters away from the far right better than Hollande’s defensiveness. This may just be another political manoeuvre by a member of ‘the elite’, but it might be the only way to save the EU and keep its people on board. If the UK must be punished for leaving, let it be done by making Europe better than it’s ever been before, not by making an example of it for those that might follow. 

What About the Children?

Nilen Patel

This is Europe’s quiet crisis. The lives of children are depicted as the most precious. They are meant to be lives to be protected and nurtured. They are supposed to be the future of our societies after all.

However, 96,500 unaccompanied children applied for asylum across Europe in 2015. Over 10,000 of these are unaccounted for or missing.

Europol, the EU law enforcement agency, believes many of these children are working as slaves, on construction sites and farm land or as sex workers. How can we let these children, the most vulnerable and valued members of society, be the ones to be let down by our European politics? In a society governed by numbers, the extent of human trafficking has long since passed the stage in Europe where it should demand attention and response.

Perhaps this is just further evidence of Europe’s ineffective strategy to cope with refugees. UNICEF found that children currently have to wait up to 11 months between registration and transfer to a country that has agreed to accept them. In Sweden up to 10 children are reported missing each week and in Slovenia more than 80 per cent of unaccompanied children went missing from reception centres. The situation is a complex and emotional one, but traffickers are taking advantage of the waves of migrants and operating across Europe due to the weakness of Europe’s child protection system.

Even on a national scale, we are far from rising to the challenge. Just last month the House of Commons defeated an amendment to an immigration bill that would have seen the UK accept 3000 child refugees. The Home Office argued that they were doing enough already to help child refugees in Syria and neighbouring countries. David Cameron maintains that we must ensure that refugees don’t have the incentive to travel across Europe. Yet the National Crime Agency identified that the number of children being trafficked in the UK increased by 46% from last year, so this is a problem that is clearly not diminishing or going to disappear.

What the Home Office failed to acknowledge is that a significant number of these refugees were under 14 years of age, and travelling alone without the protection of adult family members or guardians. As a means to pacify protestors to the UK stance, the government has agreed to fast-track child migrants who have family members in the UK as well as take in children registered in Greece, Italy or France before the refugee deal was created with Turkey. Yet is a fast-track modification of a notoriously slow process actually helpful? Furthermore, this is another act of ostracising the children who need help the most - the ones without parents or guardians. Smugglers and traffickers, meanwhile, are presenting these migrants with “solutions”, an escape route to a better life, far exceeding what the asylum jungle currently offers them.

It is this internal conflict of how to respond that is symbolic of the EU attitude towards this ever-growing crisis. Unaccompanied children just aren’t valued enough by a society hypocritically putting children in that vulnerable and important societal position.

The fact is that the conflict driving this migration isn’t disappearing, meaning it has become a question of humanity to acknowledge the situation and respond as best as possible. We need to counter the “offer” of smugglers and traffickers rather than restricting our borders. The situation they are fleeing from will always provide a greater incentive to migrate than any disincentive David Cameron could ever create.

The crisis of child refugees is a quiet one, but it shouldn’t be this way. There is an incongruence of what we as a society place value on and what our policies place value on. By reassessing what we believe is important and then crucially protecting these values, we can hope to better the situation in Europe.

Britain set for EU referendum

Hubert Cruz

UK Prime Minister David Cameron announced that a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union (EU) will take place on 23 June. The referendum was pledged by the Conservative party, who won the general election last year. Voters will be asked, “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” Cameron said he will campaign for the UK to remain in the EU after securing a list of membership reforms over lengthy negotiations with other EU leaders in the last few days.


The reforms include changes to the provision of migrants’ benefits. If the UK votes to remain in the EU, it will be able to limit in-work benefits to migrant workers for the first four years for their stay. However, the overall restrictions must be lifted within seven years. In terms of sovereignty, member states can stall EU legislations with a lower threshold of objections from 55% of national EU parliaments. The UK is also promised the right to veto financial regulations of the Eurozone, and an explicit opt-out of the commitment to an “ever-closer union” with other EU member states.


Despite the Prime Minister’s case for the UK to remain in a reformed EU, several cabinet members, including Michael Gove, have already registered their decisions to campaign for the opposite camp. As opinion polls after the referendum announcement show a marginal lead for leaving the EU, the UK is braced for another close and intensive referendum that will determine the country’s future.


Should the UK leave or remain in the EU? What are your views over the proposed EU reforms? Whatever your view, send it in - via Twitter, Facebook or our website. To know more about the issue, check out the articles below:


BBC – UK and the EU: Better off out or in?

The Guardian – EU referendum to take place on 23 June, David Cameron confirms

Independent – EU deal: Did the final agreement deliver on David Cameron's promises?

Survation – First polling conducted since specific demands for EU reform established. Leave marginally ahead of Remain


Europe's Teetering Anchor: the destabilisation of Polish politics and its effect on Europe

On the surface, Poland's parliamentary elections in 2015 seemed to herald a continuation of the progressive and successful political climate that the country has enjoyed in the past few years. 

Poland's politics matter. Its geographical positioning and new-found political clout have made it the anchor between Eastern and Central Europe. Since joining the EU in 2004, the GDP per head in Poland has almost doubled and the country's prosperity, stability, and pro-European leaning in recent years have earned it both respect and sway in European affairs. The recent elections were also only the second in history to have more than three parties with female leadership candidates. Such statistics seemed to augur well for Poland's political future. 

In fact, the crushing victory for the Law and Justice Party (PiS) that resulted from October's elections has sent out tremors across Europe. Seismic waves of political instability have left social, cultural, political, and economic spheres shaken in Poland and beyond. 

The origins of the PiS find their roots in the anti-communist Solidarity trade union. The party favours an overtly conservative orientation and its success heralds a distinct swing to the right in Poland's politics. Founded by Lech and Jarosław Kaczyński in 2001, the party claims to be the champion of the Catholic Church in Poland. It opposes any legal recognition of same-sex couples and, in 2005, Jarosław Kaczyński publicly stated that, though homosexuals should not be isolated, they should nevertheless, "not be school teachers for example. Active homosexuals surely not, in any case". Mr Kaczynski also warns against the dangers of immigration and the influence of Islam on society, even going so far as to claim that Muslim migrants “carry diseases”.

Aside from regression in social policy, the PiS's success also seems a harbinger of regression in political and personal freedom. In an attempt to consolidate power, the PiS has sacked the heads of Poland's intelligence and security services, replacing them with reliable supporters. Moreover, on December 31st, the Polish government dismissed managers of the public television and radio broadcasters, TVP1 and Polskie Radio, promptly giving its own treasury minister the power to appoint their successors. In protest, since January 1st, Poland’s Radio 1 has been playing the Polish national anthem and Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” (the anthem of the EU) alternately every hour. The image on the cover of Polish Newsweek of an eagle (Poland's national symbol) smashed and accompanied by the caption “The rape of Poland” aptly summed up the implications for the social liberty of a nation which had to wait till the 1990s to be permitted democracy.  Despite earning itself 18th position, ahead of the US, Britain, and France, in the index of World Press Freedom in 2015, Poland now faces widespread criticism from international freedom of speech groups. 

The effect on Poland's environmental policy has also proved negative. The new government is severely opposed to Europe’s climate policies and, despite the fact that 85% of the country's electricity is already supplied by coal-fired power stations, the PiS is obstinately set on building even more.

Previously one of Europe's greatest economic hopes, Poland's financial success in recent years may be jeopardized by the PiS's new policies. The solvency of the previous government is threatened by the PiS's plans to start paying child benefits to parents, to offer those over 75 free medication, and to reduce the retirement age. Clearly aimed at building on the PiS's ageing and conservative support base, these concessions not only overlook the poorest and most needy in Poland in favour of conservative loyalists, but also threaten Poland's recent economic growth.

The consequences for the refugee crisis also give the EU reason to fear. Plans by the European Commission to redistribute migrants across the EU faced opposition by many Eastern European countries, particularly Hungary. An agreement between the EU and the Eastern European nations was achieved only thanks to the support of Poland. But with the PiS in power, and their preoccupation with Polish rather than European concerns, the stability of this agreement is beginning to crumble. The recent upheavals in Poland's political situation therefore appear to be threatening to destabilise the EU's anchor in Eastern Europe, possibly even deepening the East-West divide in Europe. The future of Poland will bear on Europe as a whole, yet only time will tell what bearing this may be.  

Quo vadis Europa – Merkel or Orbán’s version?

Susan Divald

One of the classic definitions of the state is from Max Weber in his essay Politics as a Vocation: “a human community that successfully claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.” For Weber, borders define who the state can claim power over, whether it be to defend its community against outsiders or maintain inner civil peace. Through this lens of borders, force and the state, European countries sit in an odd position. The dynamics of Europeanisation have meant that the borders of Europe have been both reinforced and discarded. For those in the European Union, there is free movement of goods, people, capital and services; however, for those on the outside, access into EU countries is far from easy, creating an “insiders-outsiders” phenomenon.

The current migrant crisis brings into question these borders and if and when it is justifiable to defend them. It also shows the different conceptions of the responsibility of the state towards its own citizens and towards non-citizens. German Chancellor Angela Merkel believes the German community has a responsibility to the larger “human community” and should welcome those taking the perilous journey to Germany. Meanwhile, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán defends the state’s power to regulate who enters into its territory and who does not, in defence of its own Hungarian community.

What exactly is Orbán’s view of the state and where does it come from? One clear example is his 2014 speech at his party’s summer school in Tusnádfürdó, Transylvania where he coined the term “illiberal state". His comments made waves in the press and attracted criticism from EU leaders. The phrase has become one which will forever be hung around his neck but what did he mean?

To answer this, we need to understand the historical context of regime change in Europe. Orbán argues that Europe has gone through three regime changes: World War I, World War II and the 1990 transition from communism. The 2008 financial crisis has led to a fourth regime change, one that has occurred more slowly and which questions the ideals and sustainability of liberalism. But what is liberalism? A term difficult to pin down, but for Orbán it has meant mainly upholding the ideal of being free to do anything as long as it does not impinge on another’s freedom. To him, Hungary’s 20 years of liberal democracy have led to the stifling of those with a weaker voice to the main advantage of the corporation and the bank who have stronger weights to throw around. On the national level this has also meant that liberalism could not serve the national interest. The Hungarian state had one of the lowest levels of public wealth in all of Europe, a large amount of debt to international financial institutions and a banking system with very little ownership by Hungarians. In this case, the state was the one with the weaker voice in the liberal order.

For Orbán, therefore, liberalism has not provided the appropriate framework to organise society and the national community, nor has it been able to serve the national interest. To be able to survive the regime change stemming from the 2008 financial crisis, he calls for the need to re-think how to organise a community and maintain a state which can make the country competitive. It will not be via a ‘liberal state’ but rather through an ‘illiberal’ one. He argues a democracy does not have to be liberal, nor does a state. Indeed, there are other varieties of conceptions of the state: nation-state, welfare state and liberal state just as there are varieties of ideas of democracies – Christian democracies, social democracies, popular democracies, etc. Looking to the future, Orbán believes the most competitive way to organise a state and society will entail one that protects the national interest, while still respecting Christian values, freedom and human rights.

Is the “state” therefore still in vogue as the guarantor of national interest, or is it just the case in Hungary? Looking at responses to the migrant crisis, one element has been the protection of

boundaries in both the physical and cultural senses. The most obvious evidence of the former is Hungary’s fence construction along the border with Serbia and then Croatia for which it has attracted widespread criticism from western European states. However, Hungary is not alone: Bulgaria built a fence along its border with Turkey, France erected fences in Calais to stop migrants crossing the Channel, Germany’s police chief has recently argued the case for fencing off the German-Austrian border and Austria has announced plans to build a fence at the main border crossing with Slovenia. In addition, border controls have been enforced – or borders even closed temporarily – between European countries to manage the move of migrants, as happened between Germany and Denmark, Austria and Germany, and Hungary and Austria.

Hungary has voiced the desire to preserve the Christian identity of Europe, drawing on centuries old rhetoric of being the protector of Christianity from its southern neighbours – and at times invaders – the Ottomans. Safeguarding Christian heritage is also a concern of countries such as Poland and Slovakia, which only wanted to agree to take in refugees as long as they were Christian. However, this cultural preservation argument does not find sympathy in Western Europe’s arguably post-Christian societies, although the founding fathers of the European idea – embodied in the European Coal and Steel Community and later European Union – were motivated by their Christian heritage and ideals.

The gap in cultural viewpoint highlights a significant divide in the ways Eastern and Western Europe think about pluralism. Western Europe has experienced a more extensive history of multiculturalism and immigration since World War II, and has been wary of encouraging nationalism given the World War II track record. Eastern Europe’s challenge has mainly been the treatment of historical minorities. Moreover, nationalism was a positive force for many during communism and contributed to its fall. Looking towards the future, all countries will have to consider an integration model to use, but the options on the table may be fewer than before: many political leaders believe that multiculturalism has failed. Angela Merkel, in a 2010 meeting with young members of her CDU party said that the approach of building a multicultural society to “live side-by-side and to enjoy each other…has failed, utterly failed.” David Cameron in 2011 followed suit arguing that “state multiculturalism” has led to segregation and toleration of behaviour that went against British values. Moreover, the Netherlands – a long-standing supporter of multiculturalism – changed tracks with Interior Minister Piet Hein Donner’s integration bill in 2011 with the goals to “shift priority to the values of the Dutch people” and where “integration will not be tailored to different groups.”

In addition to the cultural and physical elements of borders, there is the issue of state sovereignty and Europeanisation. There has been an ongoing tension between giving up sovereignty to the European Union and maintaining control over domestic matters. One thorny example is the adoption of the quota system for refugee allocation, illustrating East-West divisions, with the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania opposing; in earlier discussion Poland and Latvia also opposed the measure. Why the opposition? As one Czech Member of Parliament said, “We were under the supervision of Moscow once...Now a lot of people have the impression...that the same thing is happening in Brussels.” In addition, Eastern European countries do not feel they bear the responsibility for the events that happened in the Middle East (as compared to perhaps France and the United Kingdom) and therefore should be able to decide for themselves how to handle the migrant crisis and not take orders from Brussels.

Wrapping our heads around the migrant crisis is not easy given its multi-dimensional nature and humanitarian concerns. Yet, through the lens of the power of the state, it seems clear that the “state” has increased its conceptual currency and is seen as the guarantor of the national community’s interest, particularly in Eastern Europe. With the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment in many Western European countries – including Germany and Sweden – the question becomes whether their political leaders can navigate between the definitions of the broader human community and national community. Moreover, the successful integration of the recent arrivals into the local population is essential for any long term policy solution to tackle the migrant crisis, and European leaders will have to successfully balance these two communities within their own countries. To do this, an acknowledgement and appreciation of the varied conceptions of statehood across EU countries is essential.