Italy is the latest big European country to have its politics upended in a vote of popular discontent. In voting in this way Italians are moving with the tide of national continental politics. Across the continent one political upheaval after another is changing the established order, from Hungary and Austria, to France and Germany itself, the rise of Eurosceptic politics and politicians is changing the face of European politics.
In an interview on the Andrew Marr show, given on his recent visit to the United Kingdom, President Macron, in answer to a direct question, openly acknowledged that the French people would not be given a vote on France’s membership of the EU because he thought they would vote against it. Suppressing and ignoring popular opinion in this way is a risky business.
In Germany the recent general election led to a substantial weakening in Angela Merkel’s power and authority and the election of a number of far-right members of the Bundestag. In Austria the election results were even more stark, and so the story goes on.
Italy, of course, has a long track record of post-Second World war political instability, with governments coming and going on a regular basis. This new government is the 65th administration since 1945.
This serial instability has not, until now, really threatened Italy’s participation in the European Union. Italy was a founder member. It has also not, incidentally stopped it from having a higher productivity rate than the UK. Now the politics of this substantial European country are causing real concern in Brussels – and for good reason.
Brexit, a process now well underway, has been conducted here at home, and between the UK and the European Commission, with little more grace and dignity than that which was shown by the two campaigns during the course of the scratchy referendum campaign. It has fallen to Theresa May to sort out the mess bequeathed to her by her predecessor. She has the unenviable task of trying to forge a political consensus and policy on an approach to Europe – something none of her predecessors, either Labour or Conservative, have ever managed to do.
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The European Commission, with the full backing of all twenty-seven member states of the European Union, has shown so far a remarkable, considering what is at stake, unwillingness to make Brexit as easy and as smooth as possible. Their apparent determination to make Brexit a salutary warning to any other country that has the temerity to say they want out is as extraordinary as it is short-sighted.
The Brexit vote may be unwelcome, but it is a legitimate expression of national will. Parliament voted to hold a referendum. Parliament voted in support of triggering Article 50. Parliament and the voters have combined to deliver the determination to Brexit. It may be a shock, still, that this is actually taking place but polling and, increasingly, election evidence suggests that the desire for a different European settlement is a growing one across the continent. This places the UK increasingly in mainstream of European political instinct, not at the periphery.
In the European Commission, and in the capitals and chancelleries across Europe, a radical change of tone and approach to Britain is required. It is in everyone’s interests at home and across Europe that Britain desire to realign its relationship with the European Union be facilitated as smoothly as possible. It is in the interests of the European Commission itself that it should be the facilitator and orchestrator of a smooth Brexit. It is in the combined interest of Europe’s states as whole that the emerging new politics should be respected and not sidelined.
The imposition of a hard uncompromising Brexit by the Commission is unlikely to quell the doubts of those in other countries about the Union. In time, they may even think that if a country the size of the United Kingdom can be treated in such a harsh way then just how would a smaller country be treated – and harden their views not suppress them.
The two great lessons of the last one hundred years of European history are this:
1) The continent and the UK are inextricably linked and inter-twined.
2) If a governing class tries to suppress and marginalise people’s views it usually ends badly, eventually.
The European Commission should do a sensible deal with Britain and swiftly accommodate itself elsewhere to the continent’s new political reality.