Was 2016 the EU’s “annus horribilis”?

“Politically but not economically”, was the response by John Bruton, former Irish Prime Minister and EU Ambassador to the US, at the cabinet DN ‘2016 in Review’ event this week.

In a no holds barred conversation, John and David Gow, former European Business Editor at The Guardian and now Social Europe editor, looked back, often ruefully, at the many unexpected, nay shock developments we’ve faced in this politically turbulent year.

Brexit and its broader implications for the future of the EU were, unsurprisingly, the focus for much of the discussion. Almost six months after the UK referendum, and with elections looming in several Member States in 2017, John’s key message was that, while we may be on the road to economic recovery, the EU urgently needs to address the increasing alienation of its citizens and win back their confidence and trust.

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How to do this? Firstly, by accepting that the EU is not the Government of Europe and does not have the powers to solve all problems; Member States need to step up and play their (much more active) part. Then the EU’s leadership needs to develop a simple and compelling rhetoric to explain the added-value in the lives of its 500m-plus citizens. This can’t be done by the “part-timers” in the Council (read: national leaders who have busy jobs at home) so we need to look to Presidents Juncker and Tusk. John accepted that institutional change is unlikely at this point, but felt strongly that a Council President directly elected by the people of Europe could help in creating a “European consciousness” aka ‘demos’.

On the process of the UK leaving the EU (Brexit), he drew attention to the “mind boggling complexity” of the negotiations on a future relationship, which means that any interim agreement could last up to 15 years. Britain’s Ambassador to the EU, Sir Ivan Rogers, has this week given the more conservative estimate of 10 years – we’ll leave it to them to argue over who is right! Either way, it will be a lot longer than the Three Brexiteers in Mrs May’s Cabinet admit/envisage.

Interestingly, John’s take on the impact of the UK withdrawal negotiations was that they may bring to the fore things we have previously taken for granted about the EU, so EU citizens may end up being grateful for what they have. Perhaps this is wishful thinking.

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John thought it highly unlikely Turkey would ever accede to the EU but, against the advice of MEPs, saw no need to break off accession talks with Ankara. He did, however, think it strange that the EU was considering visa liberalisation for Turkey despite the mass arrests since the failed coup – and, yet, ruled out the same opportunity for Ukraine. Realpolitik?

The conversation ended with a focus on the bigger picture. Why is there no EU strategy for dealing with President-elect Donald Trump and a possible US disengagement from Europe, or a newly aggressive and self-assertive Russia? For John, this is because “the EU is not a state, it’s a process”. So rather than criticising it for what it can’t do, we should consider what the world would be like without an EU. By his reckoning, we’d be a lot worse-off than we are.

Let’s hope that he doesn’t get a chance to be proved right.

Many thanks to all those who attended the event and, on behalf of the whole team at cabinet DN, we wish you all a very happy and healthy Christmas – and a more peaceful New Year.

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