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Europe Needs a New Narrative

Pascal Lamy, French Politician, Interview, photographed in Paris (Photo by Stephane GRANGIER/Corbis via Getty Images)
After the devastating vote, Europe needs to draw closer, and find a new narrative, Pascal Lamy said to Handelsblatt.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Britain’s vote to withdraw from the European Union has deepened the bloc’s crisis of confidence.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • British politicians are at odds with E.U. leaders over when to start negotiations to leave the European Union following last week’s Brexit vote.
    • Former E.U. Commissioner for Trade Pascal Lamy told Handelsblatt that Europe faces “very, very difficult times” and will be weakened by Brexit.
    • Mr. Lamy also called for greater integration, saying the European Union had failed over the last decade to deliver its promises of prosperity, security and progress.
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    Audio

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In an interview with Handelsblatt in his Paris Office, Mr. Lamy, one of the architects of the E.U. single market and the single currency, said the European Union needed to find a new narrative because the old one — that European integration ensured peace — no longer struck a chord with people.

The straight-talking French socialist, who served as chief of staff to Commission President Jacques Delors between 1984 and 1994 and was Commissioner for Trade, left no doubt that the Brexit vote and the stagnation in the European Union angered him. Europe, the 69-year old said, must throw down the gauntlet to the populists who are decrying it.

Mr. Lamy, who was director of the World Trade Organization between 2005 and 2013 and now works as a political consultant, also suggested that the answer to Britain’s withdrawal lay in more integration, which would put him at odds with politicians including German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble who have said closer ties among E.U. nations would be the wrong answer to the devastating vote.

We must show that we can achieve more together than individual states on their own.

Asked how Europe should respond to the referendum, he said: “You can only react to an amputation by strengthening the rest of the body. That had already been necessary before the British vote, but now more than ever.”

“If one regards European integration as necessary to secure our culture, then you can only react to the serious loss the withdrawal of the British represents for Europe by strengthening it. To do that we have to convince populations that have been tempted by anti-European forces.”

He said Brexit posed risks for the European Union which was only now returning to the  economic output levels it had had before the 2008 financial crisis.

“The E.U. made an appealing promise of prosperity, security and progress but hasn’t been delivering it for the last 10 years,” said Mr. Lamy. “We must return to a Europe that proves its purpose. That’s the European problem: a nation state doesn’t have to prove its purpose, but Europe does.”

 

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“We must show that we can achieve more together than individual states on their own.” He cited the single market, corporate taxation and the Erasmus student exchange program as areas where the European Union could show its worth.

“And then there’s a more complicated task, I call it the European narrative. It once consisted of the desire never to experience war again. But it doesn’t chime any more. We have been very bad at working on the common narrative. I believe it must be about our identity.”

While Europe had banished the risk of another war between France and Germany it had failed to find answers to external risks such as Russia and terrorism, he said.

“But what I mean by ‘European narrative’ goes further than that: I don’t want Washington or Beijing to decide what the right levels of equality or environmental protection should be in Europe. I want that to be decided by us Europeans.”

A certain level of integration was indispensable to achieve that, he said. “With institutions that must be democratic. We must push both things forward: the Europe that works and the Europe that dreams — or has a nightmare! The alchemy of the founding fathers, turning the lead of economic cooperation into the gold of political union, doesn’t work any more.”

Europe faced a period of political and economic uncertainty negotiating Britain’s exit and plugging the resulting gap in its budget, said Mr. Lamy.

“That will devour a lot of resources. We face very, very difficult times,” he warned.

A row is brewing between Britain and the rest of Europe over the timing of exit talks.

The chief executive of Britain’s Vote Leave campaign, Matthew Elliott, has said that London should begin informal negotiations on a full deal governing its new relationship with the European Union before invoking Article 50, the formal process to quit the 28-nation block.

We must push both things forward: the Europe that works and the Europe that dreams.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Europe’s most powerful leader, has been sounding more willing to make concessions to Britain than some E.U. officials who have been pressuring Britain to apply immediately to leave. But she said on Monday that informal talks on Brexit could not begin until London formally applies to leave.

That however, could take months because the ruling Conservative Party first has to find a successor to Prime Minister to David Cameron, who resigned on Friday after losing his campaign for Britain to remain.

“We must ask ourselves how we see this separation,” said Mr. Lamy. “Like Schäuble who says: ‘In is in and out is out,’ or like what one has reportedly been hearing from the Chancellor: we’ll find an arrangement somehow. That would then be like a European lawmaker put it sarcastically: the British used to have one foot in the E.U. and one outside. The referendum changes everything! Now they’ve got one foot outside and one in.”

Asked about the economic impact, Mr. Lamy said the financial centers in Frankfurt or Paris could benefit because Britain’s banks would lose their access to the Continent. “But in the long term Europe is weakened because the integrated economic area will be smaller.”

He added that Brexit placed an even greater responsibility on the Franco-German alliance, a key partnership within the E.U., at a time when the relationship was out of balance because of France’s relative economic weakness.

“Brexit isn’t good for France or Germany. I can’t imagine that the chancellor has much appetite for a constant tête-à-tête with a weakened France,” said Mr. Lamy.

Asked whether Europe had neglected its middle classes and worried too much about the health of its banks in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, he defended the European Union.

“Europe has much less inequality than the United States or Asia,” he said. “But technological upheaval is increasing inequality. A few are earning very much, and many are earning a little less. The answer must be to improve the social market economy, and Europe can contribute to that.”

 

Handelsblatt’s Thomas Hanke is a correspondent covering France. To contact the author: hanke@handelsblatt.com

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