The Maastricht Treaty, which took effect in November 1993, formally established the European Union (EU) on the basis that we know it today. Twelve western European nations, including the UK under Margaret Thatcher, ratified the Treaty. The agreement called for stronger European institutions and laid the foundations for an economic and monetary union. After centuries of bloody conflict, the nations of Western Europe were finally committed to economic cooperation.
In 2004, Cyprus and Malta also joined the EU, along with eight Central and Eastern European countries. Bulgaria and Romania joined in 2007, while Croatia followed in 2013. With the benefit of hindsight, how right the Union was to ‘strike whilst the iron was hot’ to safeguard the independence of these central and eastern European countries.
The UK then voted to leave the EU in 2016 and finally did so on 31 January 2020, with a transition period until the end of that year. Brexit was of course, a set-back for the EU. Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, described it as a “lose-lose situation”.
How resilient is post-Brexit EU?
Fast forward to 2023, and how resilient does the EU now appear, both politically and economically? One view, expressed in the Financial Times, is that the Union is looking “unprecedentedly strong”.
Contrary to the predictions of Brexiters, support for leaving the EU has dropped significantly since Brexit, according to data from the European Social Survey. Explanations include the prolonged uncertainty of the UK’s negotiations to leave the EU; the UK’s subsequent political chaos; and the country’s current social and economic ills, which are primarily attributed to Brexit. The Ukraine war has also rekindled the ‘never again’ resolution of the EU’s founding fathers after World War II.
Ukraine war fallout
As pointed out by the Centre for European Reform, the war in Ukraine represented a rude awakening to European governments which had relied on the US through NATO to deter any major threat. NATO and the EU have both played key roles since Russia’s invasion, sending weapons to Kyiv and safeguarding regional security. The two institutions, which have 21 members in common at the present time, signed a joint declaration in January 2023, saying cooperation “is more important than ever”.
The possibility of a Trump-style US presidency from 2025 may be influencing President Macron in his ambitions to build greater European defence capability, to provide more “strategic autonomy” (albeit in a way which is compatible with NATO). This could, potentially, include the UK.
Germany, on the other hand, while now spending more on defence, believes the war has illustrated the need to stay close to the US and NATO. The Franco-German relationship, once regarded as the glue holding the EU together, may be under strain, as the German SPD-led coalition grapples with its own internal challenges.
In an attempt to build bridges between EU and non-EU European democracies, President Macron has established a European Political Community (EPC), including both the UK and Ukraine, as well as other aspirants to EU membership in the western Balkans. Macron has spoken of working together on areas such as energy, infrastructure and transport. Chancellor Scholz of Germany supported the first summit of this group, held in October 2022, but he did not play a leading role.
This meeting was also attended by Liz Truss, during her brief tenure as prime minister of the UK. In an unexpected sign of post-Brexit Britain possibly feeling the need to rebuild European relations, the UK is scheduled to host the fourth summit of the EPC, reflecting the EU/non-EU alternating presidency model the EPC has adopted.
Energy and the war’s impact
The economic impact of the war has, of course, been a game-changer, especially in relation to the need to replace Russian fossil fuel supplies. President Macron wants to see more electricity production on European soil to improve Europe’s position relative to that of the US, which is energy independent. New nuclear power, more renewable energy and more energy efficiency are his preferred solutions. Germany, on the other hand, has been closing its nuclear reactors.
The recent slight contraction of the German economy in the fourth quarter of 2022 reflected these acute energy supply challenges. The Green elements within the German government coalition have had to make compromises, burning more fossil fuels in the short term, to ensure security of supply. They are, however, committed to an 80% renewable electricity target by 2030.
Overall, disruption to the EU economy has been less severe than predicted. In the view of Le Monde, so far: “the European Union is to be commended for its success in containing the effects of the war on its economy.” Whatever the internal political tensions, the resilience of the EU economy is undoubtedly seen as an asset in the fight against Russia. In November 2022, the EU, which has been supporting Ukraine financially, announced a further €18bn of support for 2023.
If the war in Ukraine proves to be long, the consequences for the EU and Europe more generally are likely to be profound. As ever, the security of the UK is ultimately dependent upon that of Europe. We cannot defend our interests alone. What a pity Brexiters did not think of that before the 2016 referendum.