Wednesday, September 27

There is now a way for the UK to rebuild its bridges with the EU – Labor should take the lead | Lorenzo Marisili

YoImagine it’s 2030. You can freely reside in and seek employment across the UK, the EU, Ukraine, Turkey, the western Balkans and a handful of other flourishing democracies. You cross open borders on integrated high-speed rail connections, powered by jointly financed green hydrogen infrastructure and integrated energy grids.

You feel secure as these countries ensure equitable supplies of life-saving vaccines and maintain a joint fast-response taskforce for climate disasters.

As Russia’s war on Ukraine continues, this sounds like science fiction. But it is a real prospect if the European Political Community – a new organization that will be launched in Prague on 6 October – succeeds. Heads of government from 44 European countries including those of all 27 EU states will attend the inaugural session. The UK prime minister, Liz Truss, despite at first showing little enthusiasm for it, has said she will be there.

The European Political Community, first proposed last May by the French president Emmanuel Macron as a forum distinct from the EU, is emerging as a direct result of Russia’s war of aggression. The aim is to create a European democratic space including, but not limited to the EU. It will be a way of providing Ukraine with long-term institutional support and a clear democratic anchorage. After the 2014 annexation of Crimea, the west turned the other way; now it must avoid that mistake.

Preventing democratic back-sliding is altogether preferable to intervention elsewhere too: countries such as Georgia, Moldova, or the western Balkans will need to be safeguarded from autocratic encroachment and this community offers them a tangible path.

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EU enlargement was traditionally meant to perform these functions. But enlargement is a painfully slow process and unlikely to happen again before the EU itself is reformed. Joining the EU can take up a decade and delays can have nefarious consequences: Turkey’s humiliation while sitting in the EU waiting room since 1987 played no small part in Erdoğan’s rise to power. And so, what is to be done.

The European Political Community is an answer to that question. It is about much more than protecting countries sitting between the EU and Russia – as the UK’s participation shows.

While Joe Biden’s Summit for Democracies was little more than a large Zoom meeting, and China’s Belt and Road initiative is a global projection of its autocratic power, the European Political Community may become the first democratic laboratory for a “planetary” politics that goes beyond the nation state and bestows tangible benefits and rights on the citizens of participating states.

The details are still to be worked out – although no shortage of good proposals are in place. The energy crisis for example, offers the opportunity for cross-border renewable production and integration of energy grids and storage facilities.

The improvement of communication and transport infrastructure for rail, road and water traffic would go a long way in creating a sense of proximity while improving market conditions. The EU’s recent extension of free mobile phone roaming charges to Ukraine offers a symbolic yet easily replicable model.

Joint investment could be secured by expanding the mechanism that underpins the EU recovery fund, the first transnational joint debt and investment prototype. Human mobility, crafting a space of free movement that halts the division between first- and second-class citizens, should be on the cards.

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The UK has more to gain than most. Truss’s attendance is welcome, although it is unlikely to lead to very imaginative or constructive engagement. And so here is a plea to British progressives and to the UK Labor party leadership: own this. A post-Brexit, progressive UK can become a leading force in a community of European democracies. A project that is complementary but external to the EU offers the UK its best tool, as a former EU member, to regain closeness with the rest of Europe, giving it its cherished global projection while returning some of the rights taken from British citizens by Brexit – from free movement to joint research funding.

It’s easy to mock the new club as a talking shop or a gimmick. And yet this is not a helpful time to belittle Europe. Faced with Covid-19 and a war on its soil, a continent accused by critics of being in irreversible decline and obsessed with micro-managing such things as the size of bananas might have been expected to collapse.

The opposite happened. Covid-19 eventually led to the EU recovery fund and to the successful joint procurement of vaccines. The war in Ukraine has cemented the solidarity between EU countries and advanced fiscal coordination with joint taxation on energy companies. Had a writer predicted such an outcome during the European debt crisis and in the wake of the Brexit referendum, their idea would have been dismissed as fantasy. But this is now the world we live in. We should not let our ambition be poorer than reality.

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