The shock of Brexit and Donald Trump’s rise is forcing Europe to tackle the deep problems that drove Britons to vote Leave, the EU’s most senior officials have admitted.
Just as polls begin to signal the UK may want to stay in the union, the European Commission’s chief strategists said the bloc now realises it must fundamentally change to remain relevant to people’s lives.
Writing exclusively for The Independent, Jean-Claude Juncker’s top officials argue the EU is becoming more open, democratic and is certain the future “must not be fudged or decided behind closed doors”.
They directed their message to the British people as Mr Juncker prepares to announce new details of how Europe will transform over the next decade and after a string of member state leaders signalled the door is still open if the UK wishes to be a part of the new future.
The full complexity of a UK withdrawal became starker this week, with the Government ‘s approach to the EU’s nuclear agency in chaos amid ominous signs of a Brexit hit UK economy and after the European Parliament saying it would veto Theresa May’s opening proposals.
Ministers are also due to publish their key piece of Brexit legislation on Thursday, the Repeal Bill, marking the start of a two-year struggle for Ms May to pass one of the most complex legislative programmes in British history, on a shaky Commons majority propped up by the Democratic Unionist Party.
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In their article, Mr Juncker’s head of political strategy Ann Mettler and deputy head Pawel Swieboda tell how after a “decade of crisis”, Europeans have rediscovered optimism and are ready to improve the bloc.
They specifically cite chaos surrounding the UK’s decision to quit the EU and Mr Trump’s election in the US as moments that shook Europe to up its game.
Pointing to the dual political crisis in Britain and the US, they write: “If anyone wondered what checking out of Europe or weakening multilateralism leads to, it is now clear for everyone to see – from increased investment uncertainty and an hitherto unknown degree of division within society, to the potential political fallout for countries so far admired around the world as beacons of democracy and freedom.”
They add: “There is now a strong sense that Europeans – having had a glimpse of the alternative – are ready to invest in our common project.
“They realise that disintegration, illiberal democracy and populism are profoundly dangerous to our democratic traditions – the freedom and tolerance painstakingly built over decades, which has at times been taken for granted.”
Critical to now bringing “fresh vitality” and “legitimacy” to the EU will be taking a decision on which of Mr Juncker’s five options for Europe’s future to follow.
The different paths were outlined in a white paper in March just days before Theresa May triggered Article 50, and were broadly entitled “carrying on”, “nothing but the single market”, “those who want more do more”, “doing less more efficiently” and “doing much more together”.
Mr Juncker’s officials write: “Unlike in the past, the Commission has not itself stated which of the five scenarios is its preferred policy blueprint.
“That is not only because of the elections taking place in many European countries, but also because the commission understands that such fundamental political choices must not be fudged or decided behind closed doors.
“Neither should the commission claim the monopoly of wisdom on what is the best way forward.”
A feeling of detachment from EU decision-making was key to the British people’s shock referendum decision last year, but the pair of officials highlight how things are changing, adding: “Instead, an EU-wide debate is needed, engaging citizens in new ways and making sure their voice matters.”
Mr Juncker is to give a state of the union address in September in which he will flesh out the five options, and launch the public debate that he hopes will help explain “each choice, as well as its inherent trade-offs” so that they are “more widely discussed and better understood”, they write.
Their intervention follows a poll by Survation, which showed a majority of Britons (54 per cent) would vote to Remain in the EU if another referendum was held, while 46 per cent would back Brexit.
In an early sign that the Government may have misjudged the difficulty of Brexit, it faced a growing backlash against its decision to leave the EU atomic agency Euratom.
On Wednesday, Ms May’s deputy Damian Green dismissed doctors’ warnings that radioactive isotopes used in cancer treatments may no longer be available as “scaremongering”, but was immediately accused by the Nuclear Industry Association of misleading MPs.
The private sector is also worried, with the Markit/Cips purchasing managers’ index for the service sector showing business expectations at their lowest level since the month after last year’s referendum. Growth in the sector fell to a four-month low in June.
In the first quarter of 2017 official EU statistics show the UK economy was the worst performer in the bloc as Brexit took its toll – Britain’s 0.2 per cent pick up was lower than Greece’s 0.4 per cent.
Difficulties in early negotiations will only further dampen the mood, after the European Parliament’s Brexit coordinator Guy Verhofstadt branded Ms May’s opening proposals for guaranteeing EU citizens’ rights after the UK leaves a “damp squib”, and said MEPs are prepared to veto any deal with the UK.
But he and others, including French President Emmanuel Macron and Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, have said the door is open if the UK wishes to go back on Brexit.
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President of the European Council Donald Tusk has also said he still holds out hope that Brexit can be reversed, telling how he had been asked by British friends if there is a way to stop it.
Mr Tusk said: “I told them that in fact the EU was built on dreams that seemed impossible to achieve.
“So who knows? You may say I am a dreamer but I’m not the only one,” he added, quoting John Lennon’s “Imagine”.