As Britain’s referendum to leave or stay in the European Union approaches, many in the Middle East must be wondering how the EU got itself in such a tangle and what the lessons and implications for the Gulf Cooperation Council are.
In many respects, the referendum on the 23rd is all about power. The EU has expanded, and with each click of the mechanic’s ratchet, it has taken more. But it has also grown chaotic and dysfunctional.
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After arriving in Brussels in 1994 to work as a foreign correspondent, it was surprising to see how the consensus-driven model of its own making was increasingly disenfranchising countries like Britain and how the project was fundamentally unsustainable.
Its survival was based on two key things: constant velocity (if the EU is seen to be not busy, the euro elite frets that it might die), and the unfettered need to slowly shift power away from EU member states.
The introduction of the euro was a huge political move towards galvanising the federalist utopia. And, to this day, momentum – now through EU expansion – remains a big part of keeping the EU project alive.
I remember being at a press conference in Brussels when the euro was unveiled in 1999 by no less than a French civil servant when it transpired that no economists had even been consulted to prepare for a contingency plan. Indeed, the euro crisis today is still a subject of great debate as Brussels never drew up a Plan B.
I also witnessed the collapse of the European Commission under a corruption scandal that same year, with Jacques Santer its president, demonstrating how “sorry” really was the hardest word as he whispered it at a packed press conference to journalists.
That same detachment from reality is ever more present today. Instead of working on a plan to retract power and become more modern and in tune with the public, the EU has gone in the other direction.
And so, remarkably, post June 23, the EU is preparing to punch above its weight and plough ahead with plans for an EU army – all this in the face of other Eurosceptic countries like the Netherlands and Denmark already talking about their own “in-out” EU referendum.
Far more interesting will be the effect of a Brexit on the EU's own misaligned ambition of being a superpower of sorts in the MENA region.
Decentralisation of Europe’s power is the goal with a federalist model to compete with the US and Russia. And yet, this vision has come nowhere near close to reality, even from an economist’s point of view.
Understandably, the Germans are desperate to convince the British to remain as an exit will hit them hard. Likewise, the “Remain” camp in the UK has always had flawed rationale.
What has struck me in recent weeks is how the argument that “the EU can reform” has been eclipsed by “don’t leave as the whole house of cards will tumble”.
But the chief argument is that if the UK leaves the EU, the bulk of the trade that it does with the EU bloc will cease.
The last thing the EU would want to do is cut off a limb just to score a petulant point. Equally, France is not going to tell its farmers that it can’t sell their vegetables to the UK, nor its champagne. Germany is not going to stop selling its cars to one of its biggest customers in Europe.
The GCC dimension
But what should the GCC countries look for with the UK? Recently, this was tackled by Chatham House, which argued – correctly – that a post-Brexit Britain would leave “the Middle East peace process on the back burner” and that the MENA region “will remain important for trade … as $18bn of UK exports went to MENA in 2014”.
Britain will enhance its existing trade deals with customers in the region – especially Saudi Arabia – and will renegotiate trade deals with MENA countries already covered by EU association agreements.
Far more interesting will be the effect of a Brexit on the EU’s own misaligned ambition of being a superpower of sorts in the MENA region.
I would argue that after the vote, the EU’s power grab is going to backfire on Brussels and that it will need to streamline its entire operation.
This survival tactic will certainly be the case if Britain leaves as many argue that it “will be the end of the EU”.
A new EU with less staff, power and activities will be the order of the day – with the first thing to be scrapped being the deluded foreign policy dossier, including the EU army, according to French admirals.
And that means one thing for the MENA region: a deficit of foreign influence from Brussels. The GCC, despite being hit by low oil prices, will be well-positioned to replace Brussels as Big Brother.
Martin Jay is a Beirut-based correspondent for Deutsche Welle TV and the founding editor of An-Nahar English.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.