Within the UK debate over whether Britain is better of in Europe or out of the EU alliance continues to rage. Journalist Mustapha Karkouti writes in Gulf News how he believes that if Britain decides to opt out of the Union – possibly followed by smaller European states – it will lead to fracturing of the EU and have repercussions beyond the continent.
It is no exaggeration to say that the European Union (EU) countries are currently facing a task of multi-historic dimensions for the first time since the mid-1950s political initiative saw the birth of the joint European action planning.
Following acute differences in security challenges recently, the world’s largest and most promising single trading group is struggling with yet another, but a much bigger challenge.
Having to face up to massive bailouts, not least to Greece, to fight off the threat of the Eurozone collapsing over the last few years, as well as serious security issues emanating from attacks in Paris and Brussels by individuals linked to Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) and Al Qaida, Europe seems to be now on the verge of taking steps to reshape its future.
If EU, as we knew it for the last three decades, is to disintegrate, or even to individually re-adjust to suite interests of each single member-state, it will have unprecedented implications for world politics and regional stability, including the Arab region at large and far beyond.
In question, primarily, is the massive number of refugees, including asylum seekers, as migrants arriving in Europe by land (through Turkey) and sea (through Greece) do not appear to show signs of slowing down, pushing the Balkan states, or the so-called Visegrad Group as well as Austria, to urgently demand taking steps to re-write EU membership rules.
Even Britain, the second largest economy and population in Europe, well-known of its historic, though controversial, ties with the Middle East, is renegotiating its EU membership rules.
The country’s Prime Minster, David Cameron, has called for a vote of an in or out referendum on June 23. No one knows how Britain’s vote will go, but whatever the outcome, it seems the time has dawned on the EU to face the challenge of downsizing rather than enlargement for the first time since its foundation.
The Visegrad Group, also known as Visegrad Four, or V4, is an alliance of four Central European countries: Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia. This group was originally set up for the purposes ‘of furthering their European integration’, in addition to their military, economic and energy cooperation with one another. Visegrad means High Castle and it is the name of a Hungarian castle town where the group was originated.
In the wake of the collapse of Communism, the establishment of V4 was declared by a summit meeting on February 1991 of the heads of Czechoslovakia (before its dissolution in 1993 into Czech and Slovakia) Hungary and Poland. All four states jointly acquired membership of the EU in May 1 2004.
Now the V4 and Austria are collectively discussing moving forwards to establish their own vision of what kind of an EU they would like to be in. This has attracted an angry reaction from Greece who recalled its ambassador in Vienna on Thursday ‘for consultation’.
In a statement, the Greek foreign ministry said the ambassador was recalled “in order to safeguard the friendly relations between the states and the people of Greece and Austria”. Citing some dark historic aspects of Europe’s ancient past, the statement said that problems facing the EU “cannot be dealt with thoughts, mentalities and extra-institutional initiatives that have their roots in the 19th century”.
The latest developments will only increase the pressure on European leaders in the weeks and months ahead before the forthcoming European summit in four months’ time. Britain’s call for referendum has clearly opened doors for European rights as well as Eurosceptic nations within the 28-state bloc to follow suite.
The Prime Minister of Holland has recently estimated that more than half of his country’s population wants a similar referendum. Czech Republic is also calling for a referendum and it is very likely that the rest of the Balkan states will go down the same route.
Unfortunately, almost all far-right parties in Europe will benefit from the wide dissatisfaction with a EU that appears too reluctant to move ahead with reform programmes. Now, with the many thousands of migrants increasingly knocking at Europe’s doors on a daily basis, the Eurosceptics are gaining momentum and there is genuine fear the referendum results could tilt in their favour.
If Britain opts out and possibly if it is followed by smaller European states, including Holland and some Balkan countries, it will most certainly lead to fracturing of the EU. Such an eventuality will curry a great deal of uncertainty for world free trade, financial markets and political stability in the Balkans and Turkey, which is facing its own critical ethnic problems. The Sterling Pound has already reacted nervously and has fallen to a seven-year low.
The so-called ‘deal’ that British Prime Minister David Cameron claimed to have secured from EU leaders to help win the necessary vote to keep Britain in Europe, will establish another tier in the Union. If the EU equally responds to similar demands by other member states, the EU may end up with additional special arrangements similar to Britain’s. EU is already operating under two different arrangements — the existing 19-state Eurozone bloc and the 26 states under Schengen agreement.
The debate in Britain about ‘in’ or ‘out’ is not new, particularly within the ranks of the ruling Conservative Party. It dates back to the late Margaret Thatcher’s years and it has now reached a boiling point. Almost half of the Conservative MPs are anti-Europe, with six members of Cameron’s cabinet and the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, also harbouring similar designs.
World powers including Germany, France, China and the US among others, would prefer that Britain stays in the EU and helps drive through the necessary reform plans that are much-needed in Europe. However, outside Europe, Britain will not only risk losing its status, but it is likely to see Scotland splitting from the UK and opting to join the EU on its own right as an independent state.
This article by Mustapha Karkouti, a former president of the Foreign Press Association, London, originally appeared in Gulf News