Amid the turmoil of the Brexit process, it is perhaps understandable that British eyes have not focused much on recent developments within the European Union.
After all, no one is particularly interested in changes to a club when its membership is about to expire.
But just as we prepare to seal our departure – no matter what that might be – the EU itself is forced to face the undercurrents that have swept the UK out of it.
The end result, in typical EU fashion, may well end up making internal divisions permanent.
Ironically, the kind of two-speed EU that the UK would probably have been happy to stay in could soon become a reality.
If you’re looking for evidence to back up this bold claim, look at an event this week that should have signaled greater European unity: the signing of a new Franco-German treaty in Aachen on Tuesday.
In what has been heralded as a ‘renewal of vows’ between the two traditional engines of European integration, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel pledged their nations to deepen their ties in a number of key areas. .
From now on, France and Germany will seek to establish common positions on a series of internal and external issues, and to make joint statements on major economic and political developments.
A Franco-German economic zone will promote economic integration, while a joint defense and security council will attempt to harmonize military relations and deployments and lead the push for a European army.
The two powers will act in concert at the United Nations. Closer to home, bilingualism will be pushed and cross-border links will be promoted in an attempt to promote a smooth transition between national territories.
Symbolism was omnipresent during the signing. The spirit of the ElysÃ©e Treaty of 1963, when Charles de Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer buried years of Franco-German enmity, has been invoked. Even the location – the seat of power in Charlemagne’s Holy Roman Empire, which Eurocrats see as the mythological forerunner of their own project – was chosen to send a clear message to EU skeptics: Federalization is back to the agenda.
In Merkel’s words, “we want to give impetus to European unity”.
If that was the goal, it didn’t take long for the cracks to appear. The text of the treaty itself was heavy with rhetoric, but lacking in detail on how its lofty goals are to be achieved.
Placed against the standards of what had been promised by Macron as the cornerstone of his EU reform program – a common euro area budget – the treaty is a disappointment. Even its supporters recognize that this is more of a declaration of intent than a big step forward in the planning of the European state.
This skepticism was exacerbated by the main players themselves, who seemed diminished rather than commanders.
Macron’s surrender to the yellow vests and his inability to break the power of the streets and pass essential reforms puts his presidency on track to be the third failed French administration in a row.
Merkel, meanwhile, was forced out of her party leadership because of last year’s disastrous election performance. His departure as chancellor will be as soon as possible.
And the day of the accounts is approaching. In May, European elections threaten to make Eurosceptic populist parties the greatest force in pan-European politics.
One of the pin-ups of the populists, the Italian Minister of the Interior Matteo Salvini, announced on the day of the publication of the draft final treaty that “it is time to oppose the Franco-German axis with an axis Italo-Polish â.
He was visiting Poland, whose own nationalist government, as well as that of Hungary, has repeatedly disagreed with France and Germany’s vision for Europe.
Even in France – where, let’s not forget, an anti-EU populist reached the second presidential run – the treaty was used as a specter to invoke the annexation in 1870 of the French border region Alsace-Lorraine by the German Empire.
Pan-European Euroscepticism is certainly not the kind of unity Macron and Merkel hoped to foster. But their push for further integration in response to the kinds of sociological and economic trends that helped provoke the UK’s Brexit decision, and are sweeping the continent, will exacerbate the divisions rather than heal them.
If they are successful, the European Union will surely split in two, as the eurozone and non-eurozone separate in a fundamental disagreement over sovereignty.
If they fail, the whole project will potentially collapse – for without pull in a certain direction the EU risks being overwhelmed by the sum of its contradictions.
Either way, Brexit Britain may soon be faced with a continent of Europe that, in part if not all, looks like the looser relationship the British people would no doubt have supported in the 2016 referendum. If only that had been offered.