As the longest-serving foreign affairs minister in the European Union, Luxembourg’s Jean Asselborn, 67, is an old hand in European politics. He got his start in politics in the trade union movement and today is a member of the Socialist Workers’ Party. From 2004 to 2013 he was also deputy prime minister under former Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, who is currently president of the European Commission.
In an interview with Handelsblatt, Mr. Asselborn weighed in on the upcoming Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom. If British voters choose to leave the European Union on June 23, the transition will not only be rough, but also irreversible, he said.
Mr. Asselborn, will English remain the dominant language in Brussels if the British vote in favor of a Brexit in the referendum on Thursday?
The former British foreign minister, Jack Straw, told me in the 1990s that he once tried to learn French in Brussels so he could understand what was going on. But he no longer needs to do that because, with the eastward expansion of the European Union, English has become the dominant language in Brussels. It will remain that way, no matter how the referendum turns out.
If we are to believe the polls, a Brexit is now considered a real possibility. Did British Prime Minister David Cameron really have to let things go that far?
I naturally hope the pro-E.U. camp wins. But Mr. Cameron made the historical mistake of letting himself be drawn into a referendum because of the dispute over Europe among British conservatives. The fact that he faced hostile opposition from London’s former mayor, Boris Johnson, immediately after the E.U. summit in February, proved a decisive disadvantage for Cameron’s anti-Brexit campaign.
At the time, Mr. Cameron had negotiated that social benefits for non-British E.U. citizens could be reduced.
That hardly plays a role in either camp’s campaigns now. In May, polls still seemed to favor a Yes vote for the European Union, because the economic advantages of the bloc stood in the forefront. Now, the mood has sadly shifted and immigration is the dominating subject. The mistake of holding a referendum cannot be corrected, no matter how the referendum turns out.
In the case that 51 percent of Britons should vote to remain, then it would be, in the final analysis, a vote for the European Union. But that would not solve the problem that results from the negative attitude of British people toward the bloc. For that, the stay camp has to reach 60 percent of the vote.
Although a Brexit would be catastrophic, there would then be none of these European compromises that would leave a backdoor open for the British. If they decide in favor of the Brexit, then the Brexit is reality.
British tabloid The Sun has endorsed a Brexit and called on the British people to free themselves “from dictatorial Brussels.” What do you think about that?
I just met in Prague with my eastern European colleagues from the Visegrad Group. I jokingly said they occasionally still confuse Brussels with Moscow. That wasn’t really meant to be taken seriously. But in Britain it is a deadly serious part of the Brexit campaign, which has drawn a distorted image of an all-powerful E.U. It is dangerous when Europe is compared to the Third Reich, as Boris Johnson has done. I hope that the murder of the British E.U.-proponent, Jo Cox, is the act of a mentally ill person, even if the perpetrator had called out “Britain First.”
Added to that is the fact that many people in the UK primarily consider Europe more of a market than a community of values. Moreover, many British still have in the back of their minds the fact that their territory was never occupied in the war and that such a subjugation could never happen. This point of view also speaks of the nostalgic remembrance of when Great Britain was still a world power.
Apparently, a lot of people in the UK believe that it doesn’t make much difference whether they vote for or against leaving the European Union. That is wrong: 2.3 million jobs on the island depend on British exports to the E.U. And 55 percent of imports in the UK are from the bloc. Given this magnitude, a Brexit would have considerable consequences. Great Britain would no longer be part of the European domestic market and the losses would be in the billions.
If the UK leaves the E.U. and still wants to participate in the domestic market, then London would have to pay a price. Although it could participate in the domestic market like Switzerland, it would no longer be able to have a say in the rules that apply to the market. Also, with a Leave vote, London would forfeit much in the matter of domestic security. Great Britain profits from working together with Europeans in fighting terrorism and crime.
Would renegotiations be possible to ensure a place in the European Union, even in the event of a Brexit?
Renegotiations are not an option – simply because the democratic vote must be respected. Although a Brexit would be catastrophic, there would then be none of these European compromises that would leave a backdoor open for the British. If they decide in favor of the Brexit, then the Brexit is reality.
First, Europe would be strategically weakened because of Great Britain’s importance in terms of foreign policy. Second, the E.U.’s economic clout would be reduced because the domestic market would shrink. And third, with the loss of Great Britain, a debate would break out over who would make up for the British net contribution to the bloc in the future. Perhaps there is also an opportunity in just such a discussion. We would be able to fundamentally overhaul the system of revenue in the E.U. budget.
You plan to meet two days after the referendum in Berlin with your fellow foreign ministers from Germany, France, Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands. What purpose does the meeting of the six founding European states serve?
If the British vote for a Brexit, there would have to be two messages at the meeting. We would have to admit that Europe has been weakened — the UK leaving would be a major setback. But all the same, the European peace project must be continued even with a Brexit. We mustn’t shirk our political responsibility should Great Britain leave. So the message will be: Not less, but more Europe.
Should the European founding states lead the way?
A core Europe that excludes a number of countries is not an ideal solution. On the other hand, we are facing a debate one way or the other on how we define solidarity among member states. No matter how the referendum in Great Britain turns out, Europeans must answer the fundamental question: In which cases must the E.U. absolutely act? People expect a lot of Europe – in the labor market, in environmental policies, and in the fight against climate change and terrorism.
German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble has said Europeans cannot demand more integration in response to a Brexit. Do you agree?
It would be wrong to provoke a debate over changing the E.U. contract or renegotiating the responsibilities of the European Commission, the European Parliaments and the member states. Just the same, I think Mr. Schäuble’s statement is contradictory. Europe is a project that is growing. Either it grows together or it grows apart. If the feeling of community is lost, Europe also loses one of its defining characteristics.
As to further integration, I only want to point out that in the joint inter-governmental consultations in Metz in April, Germany and France agreed to present a collective contribution to deepening the monetary union by the end of the year. Admittedly, we mustn’t rush this. It would ultimately be counterproductive if we started talking about shifting responsibilities from the German Bundestag and the French National Assembly in the monetary union, without being able to deliver in the end.
One of the concessions that E.U. partners made to Great Britain was that London did not have to participate in an “ever-closer union.”
Mr. Cameron succeeded in scoring political points with that. But that doesn’t take us forward on the Continent. Once again, Europe must take care of the things that national states can no longer manage alone. If we were only to offer intergovernmental solutions in the future, then we would be on the wrong track.
How great is the danger of a domino effect for other E.U. member states, like the Netherlands and France, should the British vote for a Brexit?
Even if the people in the Netherlands traditionally look to Great Britain, I am not all that worried that a Brexit would set an example for E.U. founding states, like the Netherlands or France, to follow. Particularly in the Netherlands, as in the rest of the Benelux countries, they appreciate the value of the E.U.
And what impact would a Brexit have on member states in eastern Europe, who just joined in 2004?
It can’t be ruled out that a Brexit would have a domino effect in eastern Europe. You mustn’t forget that in its day, Great Britain was one of the older members of the E.U. and it strongly pushed for expansion to the east. At the time, the British were mostly concerned about expanding the common market, and not about promoting political unification on the Continent. I sometimes ask myself today whether there is a unspoken understanding between Mr. Cameron and Jarosław Kaczyński, the chairman of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party. The two seem to be joining forces in their critical stands against the European Union.
This article originally appeared in the newspaper Der Tagesspiegel. To contact the author: email@example.com