Europe’s Failed Experiment in Regional Cooperation?

Britain’s decision to leave the EU jeopardizes the future of the European project. The Journal of International Affairs talked to Guy Verhofstadt, the lead Brexit negotiator for the European Parliament and former prime minister of Belgium, about Britain’s departure and the future of Europe.

Editor's note:

This interview appears in The End of International Cooperation? from Summer 2017.

Guy Verhofstadt
July 15, 2017

How long will negotiations with Britain take?  

The deadline for Britain leaving the union is very clear in the treaty: two years after the triggering of Article 50. After that date, Britain is automatically out.  

During these exit negotiations, only the broader framework for the new relationship should be clear. It could be a free trade agreement, or something more elaborate. But even in the case of a free trade agreement, it will take more than two years.  

We will need a transition period between Britain leaving the union and our new relationship. This year, the European Parliament voted for a resolution stipulating that such a transition period should not last longer than three years. So, we have five years to establish a new relationship between Britain and the EU.  

London has signaled it might leverage its role in defense and security issues and link it to the Brexit negotiations. Why do you find that unacceptable? 

Rendering the safety of citizens subject to political negotiations is simply not acceptable. Britain and Europe are in the middle of a fight against Islamic terrorism that requires close cooperation between our intelligence communities and our police forces. We are talking about people’s lives here. 

The respect for human life and dignity are shared values that should be upheld at all times. They should never be instrumentalized for political purposes or be conditional on negotiations.  

Can a post-Brexit economic downturn in the United Kingdom trigger a new global recession? 

Not a global recession, but it is becoming increasingly clear that Brexit is not good for Britain and it is not good for Europe—both economically and geopolitically. We should do everything in our power to mitigate the fallout so that we do not end up with another global or regional recession.   

Would other EU members accept Germany as a benevolent hegemon?  

The European project is not about hegemons even if they are benevolent. It is exactly the opposite. The European project is about regaining control over the globalized economy by pooling the national sovereignty of 27 member states.  

A well-functioning Franco–German axis is important for the European project, I won’t deny that, but it is not a goal in itself. The future of Europe lies in the further integration of the 27 countries that might not be equal in weight but are equal in value. 

The EU lacks military capabilities to pursue a more robust role in global affairs. Do you expect that to change? 

There is definitely a shift in mind-set over the last decade. I remember that my proposal for a European Defense Union in 2003 met a lot of skepticism and we were able to make only limited progress, not the full-fledged defense union I had in mind. While today you see that even the conservative and euroskeptic governments in Poland and Hungary ask for more European defense cooperation.  

The reason is simple. The “circle of friends” that Javier Solana described in 2004 has become a “circle of autocrats” like Putin and Erdogan. There is a sense of urgency in Europe now to get our foreign and defense affairs in order. 

Is it possible that the United States and UK are going to be the only victims of the populist wave?  

If continental Europe is able to keep its head cool, it will have a very positive effect worldwide; it will contain populism and nationalism elsewhere.  

First of all, Europe can show the way forward by, for example, speeding up free trade agreements with other democracies like Japan and India. Second, we are the world’s biggest economy so even the biggest nationalist or isolationist will not be able to avoid us. No matter how powerful the United States is, President Trump needs partners to work with and to trade with. Europe is unavoidable for him in that respect. 

Will Trump’s presidency harm or help the European Union? 

Donald Trump drastically changed his tune about the EU lately, in the sense that he talks positively about us now. I think he is starting to see that America benefits from a strong and united Europe. I can only hope this trend persists. 

What frightens you the most about European politics? 

My biggest fear is that when the dust settles after the big national elections in the Netherlands, France, and Germany we become complacent and think everything is ok again. Europe is far from ok. We are still in crisis: our banks are not cleaned up, our economy is barely growing, and we have no answer to the geopolitical instability in Ukraine and Syria while we suffer the consequences of those conflicts.  

The European “polycrisis” is not over and the only way to overcome it is to give the European Union real powers to conduct real policies with real budgets. For the moment, the EU is only allowed to micromanage with a micro-budget of 1 percent of European GDP. That is hardly the “super state” the euroskeptics claim it to be.