Prof. Lazar Koprinarov, political scientist and philosopher:
The European project still has unifying power
Brexit has shown one thing - integration should not be taken for granted, and efforts to that end must be made every single day and on all levels
8 September, 2017
Close-up: Prof. Lazar Koprinarov, Dr. Sc., teaches philosophy at the Southwest University “Neofit Rilski” in Blagoevgrad. He has authored several books, including The Argument of Freedom, Mobilis in Mobile, Essay on the Mobile Person, Blending Cultures, and Europe’s Europeanisation. Between 2001 and 2006 he served as Bulgaria’s Ambassador to Venezuela.
- Mr Koprinarov, the Brexit negotiations, considered vital and perhaps even fateful for the EU, have begun. Will the bloc be able to weather those well and remain functional despite the partial disintegration?
- Undoubtedly, the Brexit negotiations will be hard and traumatic for both the EU and the UK. Brexit has delivered the EU a serious blow but it will not result in the bloc falling apart. The day that Sir Ivan Rogers submitted the UK’s official request to leave the Union will be remembered as a “dark day” in the history of the European integration. However, I am confident that, with the benefit of hindsight, this day will also go down as a wrong political move by Downing Street 10. Brexit has put the notion of Europe as an “ever closer union” on ice.
However, it would be a mistake to place the blame for the abovementioned troubles entirely at Brussels’ doorstep. The disintegration currents had already been there even before London expressed its desire to leave the EU. The waves of Euroscepticism, populism, anti-establishment, etc. paved the way for the renationalisation of Member States’ priorities, for less solidarity and more differentiation. Brexit was made possible by that very political landscape.
But the UK’s desire to divorce the EU is causing more than anxiety. To a certain extent, it has had a reverse effect on many Member States. Brexit is not being perceived as an example to follow but as a threat that should be eliminated. Once the initial shock had waned, Brexit started bringing the Europeans together. Opinion poll results across Europe definitely seem to show as much. The presidential elections in France, where the European line clearly and convincingly prevailed over the Europhobia and nationalistic propensity are indicative of that. This is why I believe that the EU will cope with the huge challenge it is facing. The unifying power of the European project has not been exhausted. But Brexit has shown one thing - integration should not be taken for granted, and efforts to that end must be made every single day and on all levels. Otherwise, bad surprises are bound to lurk around the corner.
- The hopes for a smooth divorce have dwindled in the aftermath of the election chaos in the UK. Brussels had hoped that May would win a large majority, which would have helped her push necessary compromises through in parliament. Should we expect the negotiations to hit a stalemate that will hurt the EU’s ability to solve its own problems?
- The talks will not only be traumatic but hard to predict. First, they set a precedent in the bloc’s history. The UK is an integral part of the EU’s “family dynamics” and institutions. Hence, even if the good tone is kept, the divorce and the “property settlement” will be very difficult. Second, the UK government’s domestic positions are weakened; it has unclear mandate and a complex parliamentary support. This undermining influence comes from several directions. On the one hand, there are the results of the recent parliamentary elections and on the other, there are London’s thwarted expectations that it will be able to compensate its exit of the EU with a strengthened cooperation with the US. The protectionist line in Donald Trump’s policies, his “America first” mantra have blocked any opportunities for such a change of course. Third, London’s positions are further undermined by the pro-European attitudes in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Scotland is prepared to hold an independence referendum. Theresa May, or anyone in her place, will not risk etching their name in history as the ones to have caused the UK’s collapse. Fourth, the UK wants to stay in the single market for as long as possible, but pay as little as possible.
The cost of the concessions demanded is prohibitively high. If such a deal is signed, attitudes similar to those that resulted in the Brexit vote will escalate. All these circumstances preclude the extremely challenging nature of the recently launched negotiations.
- How likely is a stalemate?
- It is possible but unlikely. Neither party has anything to gain from such a result. Both the EU and the British stand to lose from it.
- The European Commission announced damage control, limiting the economic upheaval and preserving the Union as its priorities. Bulgaria is also part of this mission with its upcoming Presidency of the Council of the EU. What can we do?
- As fate would have it, Bulgaria will assume the rotating presidency at a time of strong centrifugal forces in the Union. This presents a serious challenge but also a tremendous opportunity for our country. We regularly complain about being in a position of the ones having no impact. Now we will have to be active in setting the agenda and driving decisions on the future of the EU. Of course, we can save efforts and avoid risks by limiting Bulgaria's role to taking care of the logistics of the presidency. But it seems to me that we now have the diplomatic resource and the leadership experience, not to mention the ambition, to act as a successful facilitator in finding the solutions to preserve the integrity of the EU. Bulgaria has a certain advantage in the role of mediator as it is not part of any "interest groups" such as the Visegrad Group. But there is also a detrimental factor in that same aspect - the rest of the Member States are not so willing and eager to enhance cooperation with Bulgaria. A recent study by the influential European Foreign Policy Council shows that Bulgaria is near the bottom of the list in all three questions asked - with which country do national governments want to cooperate, with which country they have shared interests and which country has responded to proposals for joint action? The study was conducted among 421 experts from all Member States. These results hint at how incredibly difficult the task of presiding over the EU will be for Bulgaria. But this is also a great opportunity for the country to overcome this lack of confidence. Bulgarian efforts in the search for a common stance on Brexit will be part of this great chance.
- How will the EU look without the UK?
- The UK will find life far more difficult without the EU than the other way round. I share some analysts' opinion that the EU will probably be governed better without the UK in it. But a protracted divorce proceeding will cause serious disturbances for both sides. The sooner the break up is done, the better for all involved.
- On this side of the Channel, we see the shifting political landscape in France. The success of Macron and his one-year-old movement was the result of voters having lost confidence in the establishment parties. What are your expectations of the neither left nor right Macron and his overwhelming majority in parliament?
- At the presidential elections, the French citizens were faced with a choice between left (socialist Benoit Hamon), right (Francois Fillon of the Republicans), far-left (Jean-Luc Melenchon, who draws inspiration from Hugo Chavez) and far-right (Marine Le Pen) candidates. In the end, they chose Emmanuel Macron - a pragmatic politician who is more interested in efficient political action than ideology. The French preferred Macron - an optimist, a reformist with an unapologetically pro-European position, an advocate for a France open to the world, ready to play a crucial role in creating a common future for Europe.
Macron won the elections without pledging unattainable things. He won over the French voters without demagogic vows and employing populist techniques. He defeated the French political establishment, offering a coming together of politicians and citizens with left, right and centrist ideas in the name of a common goal - modernising France and improving its competitiveness.
Over the past decade, France’s gross domestic product has grown by a rate of just 1%. Only five other EU countries have higher unemployment. Due to the massive social security programmes, France has the largest government spending in the EU - in excess of 57% of GDP, compared with an EU average of 47%.
In order to boost the French economy, Macron will have to reduce the fiscal burden. The labour legislation, which considerably hinders young people’s realisation on the labour market, also needs to be overhauled. These are the types of reforms bound to meet with a strong pushback from the influential trade unions in France, as well as some left parties. Only the future will tell what kind of president Macron will be. If he is successful, the EU will be stronger.
- In March, a European diplomat described the concept for the evolution of the EU presented in EC President Jean-Claude Juncker’s White Paper as a restaurant menu from which everyone can select items to their liking, a la carte. Is this the future EU?
- Jean-Claude Juncker outlined five scenarios for the future of the EU and debates on them should be concluded by the year 2019. Most likely, we will see some sort of combination between several scenarios. What is certain is that the EU’s policies and way of operating will be changed. On the one hand, the tendency towards federalisation of “the willing” will grow, and on the other, each Member State will have more freedom to make its own decisions. This will create greater opportunity for deeper integration - the scenario Those Who Want More Do More. Meanwhile, those nationalistic attitudes that led to Brexit will be assuaged.
- Will multi-speed Europe help the EU’s profile as a global player - politically and economically?
- Recently, Klaus Schwab, founder and executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum, noted that the debate on EU reforms has been focused on the emergence of a “multi-speed Europe” but that it must also take into account “multi-need Europe”. This would mean accommodating for “different speeds”, while making sure this is not to the detriment of the EU’s cohesion policy. “Multi-speed Europe” will shore up the EU’s role as a global player, as long as the differentiation within the bloc does not destroy the solidarity principle and stunt Member States’ convergence efforts. The more competitive the EU is, while staying together, the greater role it will have on the international stage.
- What does the opposition demonstrated by Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia against Brussels “dictates” mean? After all, it was the European Commission that suggested the concept of “the coalition of the willing”. This spring, Merkel, Gentiloni, Rajoy and Hollande all agreed that the concept of “differentiated Europe” can save the EU from its identity crisis.
- Member States cannot enjoy the benefits of the EU and at the same time fight responsibilities that come along with EU membership and that are sometimes perceived as unwanted. The EU must find the right balance and combine the solidarity principle with the responsibility principle. By the same token, the members of the Visegrad Group need to realise that by accepting the benefits of the solidarity shown by other Member States, they agree to share the burden of responsibility.