France and Germany have hatched up a plan they hope will tempt the UK to rejoin the EU – at least as an “associate member”.
French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz want to see an “inner circle” of countries bound together by ever-closer rules covering areas like EU budgets and tax – and even defence, security and foreign policy.
An “outer circle” would be based on the single market, but not bound by the Brussels dream of an ever-closer union. It would, however, be based on free movement and “open-door” immigration policies.
They hope this will provide a home for existing EU members such as Hungary and Poland who are losing patience with Brussels, and nations like Norway and Switzerland that never wanted to join in the first place. The French and Germans have also floated the idea of Britain signing up.
I voted Remain in 2016, but immediately accepted the referendum result and argued for a deal that would get us out of the political institutions and ever-closer union, but protect businesses and jobs that depend on trade with EU. Any chance of a compromise then was strangled at birth as people tried to re-run the referendum or block Brexit altogether.
And this new plan is not going to work today. Even Labour Leader Sir Keir Starmer, who previously fought tooth and nail to keep us in the EU, dismissed the idea.
However, the plan may appeal to those who still hope Brexit can be reversed, such as parts of the business, media and political establishment. But what they need to understand is that the utopian dream of a tolerant welcoming EU is over. It’s time to put this wishful thinking to bed.
The liberal vision on which the EU was built is disappearing as countries across Europe elect right-wing politicians – in some cases even from the far right. Macron and Scholz are fighting desperately to keep Europe together as mass migration and anger at falling living standards threaten to rip it apart. Working people across Europe are worried and angry as new technology and cheaper imports threaten traditional industries and put people out of work. Low growth and low wages mean many real incomes have not increased for 20 years.
First came Italy’s new far-right Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni. Her Brothers of Italy party has been described as “the most far-right government since the fascist era of Benito Mussolini”. Just like Donald Trump pledged to build a wall to prevent migrants crossing the border from Mexico, Meloni promised a naval blockade to stop people getting to Europe from the Mediterranean.
Then came Sweden, where a party described as having “neo-Nazi roots” claimed 20 per cent of the vote. Finland and Greece have also both shifted to the right.
Germany’s Alternative for Germany party is under surveillance for suspected far-right extremism, but that hasn’t stopped it overtaking Chancellor Scholz’s Social Democrats in opinion polls.
Who would have thought that, in modern, liberal, democratic Germany – a nation still scarred by memories of the Nazis?
And who would bet against Marine Le Pen winning next year’s Presidential election in France? She’s changed the name of the National Front, toned down the rhetoric and presents a reasonable smiling image. With Macron not allowed to run for another term, she may be the front runner.
Unlike Britain, many of these countries flirted with, embraced or compromised with the far right in the 1930s and during the war. And that should be the warning.
If mainstream leaders fail to come up with proper plans to tackle crime, reduce immigration and bring good new jobs to areas that have lost traditional industries, frustrated and angry voters across Europe will turn to right-wing parties and populist leaders who promise tough action.
Ian Austin is a crossbench member of the House of Lords.