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Analysis
No more taboos: Now we’ll find out if it’s adiEU

No more taboos: Now we’ll find out if it’s adiEU

Europeans must decide whether to unite or become Greater Balkans

by Jacques Lafitte in Brussels

Wed 22 Jun 2016

The negative differences are numerous and clear in the UK: divisions resembling all-out civil war in the Conservative party, with the Labour party in not much better shape. Emotional insults between protagonists, an unprecedented amount of exaggeration (on both sides), and in the end a political murder. For an outsider it is hard to see British democracy other than seriously weakened.

Across the Channel we have watched the European Union plebiscite unfold with worry. If ‘Brexit’ wins, my fear for the last three years, we can safely expect a fiesta for eurosceptic parties over the summer, with Vladimir Putin happy to propose vodka as an alternative to champagne and spumante.

Yet there is another side to the Brexit campaign that I consider historic in nature and may turn into a blessing for the EU, possibly even the cornerstone of its revival: the end of taboos.

Take the enlargement taboo. Just a few years ago, France was severely criticised for daring to decide to hold a referendum on every EU enlargement beyond Croatia. Of course the French had Turkey in mind. At the time Britain was Turkey’s staunchest supporter and France’s strongest critic.

Now Britain has caught up with France, with British political leaders insisting Turkey will not join the EU for a few hundred years.

It is not just the enlargement taboo that recent developments have swept away. The EU is in the middle of an intellectual revolution on a scale I personally think is bigger than the Maastricht era. In 1991-92 the debate was about moving to a single currency. Now it is about survival. Life matters more than money.

The Brexit debate has acted as a huge wake-up call for people who are not ready to leave the EU. Those who already wanted to leave did not need one. When it comes to survival, the gloves are off.

Another taboo that has gone is the position of the European Commission president as being like the Pope or the Queen – above criticism. Last week, the must-read Brussels online and weekly journal Politico took on Jean-Claude Juncker, the Commission president. He was ‘increasingly on the sidelines’, had ‘no strategy’, ran a ‘PR Commission’, was ‘plagued by health problems’ and insiders would ‘not remember the last time they saw him’. Politico journalists brought much fresh air to EU reporting when they arrived in Brussels a year ago. But the violence of this attack still took everyone by surprise.

More taboos may come under scrutiny, including free movement and the UK’s right to veto what it dislikes. If Britain leaves, we will soon know if there is a nirvana of new economic energy and growth in Britain isolated from the single market. If that happens, and the UK bestrides the world as in the days of empire and the sterling area, Brexit will be vindicated and other EU nations will follow. It will be adiEU.

If foreign investment into Britain goes into reverse, if the housing market takes a hit, if high-end services relocate to Dublin, Frankfurt or Paris, and if unemployment grows by a few hundred thousand, very different conclusions will be drawn.

David Cameron may go into the history books for reasons far less glorious than the ones he imagined. But the prime minister will have fulfilled one promise he made in his London speech in January 2013 setting out the referendum plan. He said Europe would have to change. That has happened.

Europeans must decide whether to unite or become a Greater Balkans. In the process, more taboos will be cleared away.

Jacques Lafitte is Chief Executive of Avisa Partners, Brussels, and a former aide to Yves-Thibault de Silguy, the European Commissioner responsible for introducing the euro in 1999.

This is No.99b in the series.

OMFIF’s series on the UK EU referendum presents a wide variety of perspectives from Britain and around the world ahead of the 23 June poll. We are assuring a balance between many different points of view, in line with OMFIF’s overall neutral stance on the issue.

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