Fraying Europe: The call of the future

Faced with a fraying Europe, Israel’s task is to do there what it has learned to do in the Middle East: Keep neutral and cultivate trade.

By
July 2, 2016 08:15
Nigel Farage

Nigel Farage, the leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), makes a statement after Britain voted to leave the European Union last week.. (photo credit: TOBY MELVILLE/REUTERS)

 
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People are angry at Britain.

“The British have given the world’s political, financial and business establishment a massive kick in the teeth,” accused The New York Times’ Roger Cohen, while asserting that “the world has entered a period of grave volatility.”

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His colleague Tom Friedman concurred, writing that the vote, though “not the end of the world” itself, “does show us how we can get there.” And summing up the universal sense of shock, Cohen asserted: “Irrationality is in the air.”

Such lamentations are, of course, debatable. As the British majority sees it, the irrationality at play was not in the air, but down on the ground, and it was not theirs, but their European adversaries’ when they undermined elected government, exposed the continent’s borders, twisted economics, provoked Russia and invited a refugee crisis of a biblical scale.

Friedman may or may not be vindicated in his impression that Brexit’s thinkers and voters are but “hucksters who think that life can just imitate Twitter,” but the fact is that the call the Brits just made represents more than whim or fashion.

It voices fears that are genuine, widespread and deep, and whether or not justified, they herald the future.

The first to internalize this transition were the financial markets, where – as this column predicted two weeks ago – the vote’s initial impact proved brief and shallow.

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Yes, the pound took a beating for two days, but then it stabilized after its depreciation had bottomed out at 13 percent down against the dollar, and 8.5% against the euro. The FTSE index of the 100 leading British-traded shares shrugged off its initial declines, which, after bottoming out at 9.4% down, shrank by Thursday morning to a loss of hardly 1%.

In other words, from the markets’ viewpoint, the die has been cast, and from here on, the task of investors is not to debate Brexit, but to map it and begin configuring its opportunities and risks.

This is the forward-looking mindset that should guide all of this saga’s actors on both sides of the Channel, and also its many spectators, from Washington to Jerusalem, all of whom should take note of French nationalist leader Marine Le Pen’s gloating that the European Union is going down the path of the Soviet Union, “which died of its own contradictions.”

TO AVOID the Soviet Union’s fate, the EU will have to assume a mentality of introspection and devise a plan of partial retreat.

Back in the 1950s, its founding fathers heard the people’s will and understood history’s calling when they set out to end the continent’s war-torn past. Their successors will now be tested by their ability to hear the people’s new will, which is to preserve national identity and restore national sovereignty.

The more this sentiment’s existence, legitimacy and potency is denied, the more Le Pen and the rest of the continent’s proliferating nationalists will gather power and inspire a grand reaction whose aftermath even they might ultimately regret.

The retreat the EU must make is, first and foremost, about its federalist ambitions. Brussels will have to humbly relinquish much of the power it wrested from its member states and generally return to be the economically focused organization its founders initially devised.

This imperative was hinted at last year when Hungary rejected Brussels’s demands concerning refugee absorption, a resolve that soon inspired other post-communist EU members. Now this plot is thickening, because in capitals like Prague and Warsaw, many generally admire Britain, and even more so when it seems to be at loggerheads with Germany and France.

That is what Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski meant when he said on Monday that “the aftermath of Brexit will leave central and east Europeans less trustful in the general idea of the European integration project, and will boost nationalist sentiments.”

A history PhD and career diplomat who led Warsaw’s missile-defense negotiations with the US, Waszczykowski admonished Brussels to acknowledge that it was staring at a political failure.

“When a political project fails... one either has to change the rules of the game or give other politicians a chance to improve this project,” he said.

The setting in which the Polish foreign minister spoke, a summit with his Hungarian, Czech and Slovak colleagues, was even more foreboding from a European viewpoint, as it reflected a deepening East-West chasm within the organization that had just lost its western flank.

Brussels will therefore have to heed calls like that of Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka, who said on Tuesday: “We need to change the overall functioning of the EU.” It is a test Brussels may well fail if it follows the conventional wisdom of leaders like Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel, who said: “I am not vindictive, but we need to let the British feel that they landed a Pyrrhic victory.”

The British, for their part, did not seem impressed with the Belgian recommendation as they followed the commotion in the Conservative Party while Thursday’s deadline for prime-ministerial candidacy submissions approached.

The leading candidates, Justice Secretary Michael Gove, who backed Brexit, and Home Secretary Theresa May, who opposed it, both understand that their task will be to shape Britain’s post-Brexit future. It is a daunting task and might explain Brexit-camp leader Boris Johnson’s surprise decision to cancel his own prime-ministerial bid. However, unlike Europe’s task, which is still at its “what” stage, Britain’s has crossed the bridge to the “how” stage.

Moreover, while any EU move involves endless talks among 27 disparate and often antagonistic cousins, Britain’s path will be led by one government with a solid parliamentary majority. Though the referendum split the ruling party and also the opposition, the Tories now realize that their task is to collectively lead where the voter just pointed.

The summer will be fraught with some uncertainty, but come fall, David Cameron’s successor will enter 10 Downing Street and immediately proceed to the business of leaving Europe. Being the pragmatists they are, the Brits – whoever ends up leading them – can be counted on to craft this divorce in a way that will maximize economic harmony, and minimize the surgery’s pain.

Europe, at the same time, will have to choose between its founding members’ anger at London and its eastern members’ anger at Brussels.

Suppressing the former and accommodating the latter are the key to the union’s survival. It should also be the key to the next American president’s treatment of Europe’s travails.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA’S partiality toward the Brexit referendum joins his expiring presidency’s long list of diplomatic blunders, from North Korea to Russia and Ukraine through Egypt, Libya and Syria.

For one thing, Brexit was an internal British affair that demanded American neutrality. Moreover, when governments do take the unusual step of meddling in other countries’ affairs, they had better avoid backing the losers. Yet most crucially, the kind of artificially federated Europe that Britain has just snubbed is a problem for America’s interests.

Yes, had it been feasible, a federated Europe would have been a wonderful ally for the US. But as Britain’s voters and central Europe’s statesmen have made plain, such a federation is not feasible, and what came in its place destabilized the world with an unworkable currency, porous borders and a Ukrainian misadventure.

It follows that Washington’s post-Brexit imperative will be to help London and Brussels retain their economic alliance while they disentangle themselves politically.

The most effective way to make this happen will be by the US speeding up its own prospective free-trade talks with the kingdom that is Uncle Sam’s most solid, loyal, veteran and natural ally in the world.

Israel’s imperative will run along the same lines.

Fortunately, Israeli leaders were wise enough to avoid statements concerning Brexit before or after the referendum, other than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s minimalistic response that the result had “no direct effect on Israel.”

This neutrality does not go without saying. Back in 1990, following the fall of the Berlin Wall, then prime minister Yitzhak Shamir came out against Germany’s unification.

Netanyahu, at the time deputy foreign minister, surely recalls this long-forgotten shot in the dark, which was as emotionally fueled and diplomatically quixotic as it was historically misguided.

Now, in line with the neutrality it has been cultivating in the face of a fraying Middle East, Israel emerges neutral as Europe frays. By sheer coincidence, this attitude proved its utility this week when Turkey, up to its shoulders in the Syrian crisis, mended walls with Israel.

For Jerusalem, the restoration of full diplomatic ties with Ankara was the fruit of a Middle Eastern neutrality underscored by convoys of Turkish trucks ferrying Turkish goods daily to Haifa, whence they proceed to Jordan and Iraq, thus bypassing war-torn Syria. This commotion is an emblem of what is happening more broadly between Israel and the Middle East since the region’s collapse into multiple civil wars more than half a decade ago.

What awaits Israel in Europe is a variation on this theme.

No, there will be no civil wars in Europe, even as its union’s hooks loosen, but there will be new demand for things that Israel can deliver to a decomposing Europe without taking sides in its controversies – from helping a country like Hungary build the border defenses it wants, to delivering Britain one of the many free-trade deals that its new leadership will surely crave.

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