Why it's time to reform the EU, with or without Britain

Will the real European Union please stand up? For that matter will the real Great Britain please stand up? Because last week's talk of an “Independence Day” was a bit confusing.

The European Union was always a compromise, as well as a scapegoat, for national governments facing criticism

After last week's Brexit vote, confusion and uncertainty continues to spread across the continent. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Will the real European Union please stand up? For that matter will the real Great Britain please stand up? Because I got a bit confused last week with all that talk of "Independence Day."

Had I missed the moment when the U.K. lost its status as a sovereign nation? Was the Queen no longer on the pound? What happened to the Commonwealth? And exactly when did the EU morph into something beyond a supra-national body its members had willingly shaped and signed up to, still ultimately controlled by the nations that had created it?

The Leave campaign employed an ultimately successful strategy of implying that the EU's institutions had become far more powerful than the national governments that created them, sort of like Frankenstein's monster turning on its creator.

Or to borrow another sci-fi image, machines taking over the world. Just imagine a congress of shiny cylons sitting around the boardrooms of the European Commission or filling the semi-circle at the European Parliament, coming up with all sorts of nefarious plots involving regulations about shoelaces, clean beaches and molasses.

A Leave supporter in London wears a Union Jack paper hat after polling stations closed last Thursday in the EU referendum. By a margin of 52 to 48 per cent, U.K. voters opted to leave the 28-nation bloc, delivering a major blow to the European project aimed at forging unity. (Toby Melville/Reuters)

It tells us a couple of things. First, that many Britons went to the polls remarkably ill-informed about the workings of the Union. But it also shows what an abject failure the EU's main institutions — the Commission, the Parliament and the Council of Ministers, have been at transmitting their relevance … not just to Brits, but to the vast majority of European Union citizens.

And so come the calls for reform.

"We have to make sure that the people can feel how much the European Union contributes in improving their own personal lives," German Chancellor Angela Merkel said early Friday, after news that Britain had decided to opt out. "This is a task for the European institutions as well as the member states."

Europe's longtime scapegoat

She's not kidding about the need for member states to back their own creature. Brussels has been a convenient scapegoat for national governments for decades, leaders voting in favour of proposals at the European Council or rubber-stamping them and then blaming the Eurocrats if there is criticism or push-back at home.

But the Brexit has reminded government leaders that they could be faced with the rise of the clones if they don't act soon. Other anti-EU parties, usually right-wing, populist and xenophobic, are demanding their own referendums.

Marine Le Pen, who leads the party founded by her Holocaust-denying father, is already campaigning hard for a Frexit.

"The risk of [contagion] is such that we need to send a strong and clear message [that we are] revamping the European project," Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni said on the weekend.

But what does that mean in a Union where the main protest party of Spain, for example, criticizes the EU for failing it in terms of social policy, imposed austerity and the abandonment of refugees, while in Slovakia, the populists are demanding to leave in part because of the refugee crisis.

EU of today didn't come without compromise

Last week I revisited the Dutch border town of Maastricht, where the Treaty of the same name was signed by 12 member states in 1992, creating the European Union as we know it today, complete with the British opt-out of European Monetary Union.

The notion that Britain was the only one making difficult demands back then is revisionist. Everyone had to compromise. And they did — for an idea that's been a reality for more than three decades.

"It was a very complex negotiation situation where also the Germans and the French were not always of the same mind, and also the Dutch Presidency came up with a different treaty structure that wasn't really meeting a lot of support from other countries," says Kiran Klaus Patel, a political science professor at the University of Maastricht. "There was a lot of compromise."

The Maastricht Treaty, signed by 12 member states in 1992, created the European Union as we now know it. But it didn't come without compromise. (Marcel Van Hoorn/AFP/Getty Images)

That's what makes last week's decision so inexorably sad for many who've followed the Union's tortured progress over the years. To get to that point seemed a miracle of political will and vision and mutual understanding.

Even more troubling is the fact that so many Britons now are suffering from voter's remorse, describing their Leave ballots as a protest vote they didn't really believe would "take."

The vote seems to have brought that faceless mask that is "Brussels" into some kind of focus at long last. All of a sudden, Brits heard their EU partners expressing genuine sadness that they wanted to leave.

Let us not set an example

Many people on the continent this past week said they agreed with the United Kingdom that the EU needs reform. But few saw it as a reason to quit, as continental Europeans have a greater sense of ownership of the EU than most Brits.

"It's sad because we are a union and it's based on peace and trade and economics," said a young Dutch woman in Brussels who was hoping to be hired by the European Commission. "So it's a sad day that they move out. Hopefully [it] won't be an example for other countries now to try and vote out of the European Union."

Thursday's divisive vote came after months of campaigning and is expected to shape both the U.K. and EU for years to come. (Marc-André Cossette/CBC)

Both Boris Johnson, the former London mayor tipped as a successor to David Cameron, and Trevor Kavanagh, a newspaper columnist, have told me that one reason the Brits should vote to leave was they had no idea who their members of the European Parliament were. No idea.

In the midst of all these calls for EU reform, which might take 20 or 30 years to push through, who is going to fix that?

It's not as though the British people are being asked to vote for Spaniards or Portuguese or Finnish representatives who've never put a foot on British soil.

The representatives they elect are British. They're not cylons, or Syrian refugees or grey-suited Eurocrats. They're Brits. Exit campaigner Nigel Farage, for example, managed to get himself elected to the European Parliament, all the better to destroy from within.

When was it decided that democracy had to be delivered on a plate for people to consume? When was it decided people didn't have to inform themselves about their own elections and the candidates running to represent them?

It's all very well to call for the reform of the European Union. But relying on bureaucratic institutions or national governments isn't enough. People have a responsibility too to inform themselves.


Margaret Evans

Europe correspondent

Margaret Evans is a correspondent based in the CBC News London bureau. A veteran conflict reporter, Evans has covered civil wars and strife in Angola, Chad and Sudan, as well as the myriad battlefields of the Middle East.


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