The constitutional and economic sabotage the British people have brought upon themselves through last week’s referendum shows no real sign of abating. Rarely has a population inflicted upon itself such immediate suffering.
Nevertheless, we are where we are and it may do no harm to use our imagination now.
One of my frustrations about referendums is they offer a binary choice on issues which, very often, are more complex.
As we can see above, Europe is vastly more complex than just EU and non-EU!
It has always struck me that Europe is split more sensibly into groups, based on geographical and linguistic/cultural proximity. As can be seen above, many of these already exist – the Nordic Council, the Common Travel Area, the Baltic Assembly, Benelux, the Visegrád Group, Central Europe (CEFTA; the former Yugoslavia outside the EU plus Albania) and the Black Sea (BSEC above). There are even natural groupings among the remainder – German-speaking Europe, for example.
If we were to put all those together from scratch, would we be trying to group almost all of them into a single Union with its own parliament, bank and currency? I suspect not. Already Switzerland is in a markedly different position from Austria; and Norway from Denmark; despite the obvious geographical, cultural and linguistic similarities. Even within the European Union, we have Slovakia in the euro but Czech Republic not yet; Finland in the euro but Sweden probably never; Ireland in the euro but the UK formally opted out.
In fact, if we were trying to build single currencies into the equation, we would probably have single currencies for the different groups – a “Krone Zone”, a “Sterling Zone”, a “Balt zone”, a “Eurozone”, a “Zloty Zone” and so on. It is quite possible that those blocks would peg their currencies to each other and would even gradually merge; perhaps Benelux with German-speaking Europe, for example. Whether you would ever put Portugal and Latvia in the same currency is debatable, however.
We are not starting from scratch, but I do wonder if some non-euro EU member states will be tempted by the UK’s new post-EU status, which will probably (though who knows?!) be akin to Norway’s. At the same time Norway had a referendum to oppose EU membership in 1994 (coincidentally by 48:52!), Sweden passed its narrowly by the reverse margin. But would Norway’s and the UK’s (and for that matter, topically, Iceland’s) status not make more sense for Sweden, given it too has a not dissimilar intra-EU immigration profile and no intention of ever joining the euro? Then what about Poland and Hungary; might they too, as close allies of the UK in the EU, not also benefit from staying outside the euro and thus formally leaving the EU to join the new EEA satellite states? It is not crazy.
There are even states within the euro which may begin to feel they should be in another currency zone. Would Finland not be better sharing a currency with Sweden and/or other Nordics, having not had the tools to cope with the recent economic slowdown the way the rest of the Nordics did? And the oft-mentioned David McWilliams has long hinted that Ireland would be economically better off in the Sterling Zone, a view surely enhanced by the fact that instinctively economically liberal Ireland will find the EU top table colder without its British allies at it – unimaginable now but maybe not a decade or so hence. Should we then turn to whether Greece, Italy and other Southern European countries are really better off being unable to devalue their currency against Germany’s, once a core economic lever without which they have unquestionably suffered? It is at least worthy of consideration.
The question worth asking, in other words, is whether the UK’s imminent exit simply means the EU has become too large, not least because it was the UK itself which was prominent in arguing for a larger rather than a deeper Europe. There is at least an argument for the European Commission, Parliament and Central Bank to cover only the core Eurozone (in other words, the EU formally shrinks to cover only the Eurozone), with other parts of the EEA covered by the Nordic Council, the British-Irish Council, the Baltic Assembly or perhaps a Visegrád Council each with their own Commissions and Central Banks; these would then cooperate, perhaps via the European Council, to ensure the smooth and fair functioning of the European Single Market.
The crux of the issue is that the EU cannot possibly lose its second largest member and then proceed as if nothing has occurred, no matter how carelessly it happened. Clearly, there are a lot of people for whom the EU and its institutions are too distant, and it would be foolish to believe those people only live in England and Wales. Perhaps a more core Union, with other interrelated groups of countries forming a clear single market (and environmental alliance) in cooperation with it, would make for a more stable and relevant way to ensure European harmony into the 21st century?
Such things should at least now be considered, surely? And it would be wise for the UK to stay at the table while they are.