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Paul Wells

June 28, 2016 by Speakers' Spotlight

EU Can’t Go on Forever Without Earning Consent of the Governed

Nobody knows Ottawa better than Paul Wells, the former political editor ofMaclean’s magazine and the current national affairs columnist at the Toronto Star. In more than two decades on the Hill, he has covered seven federal elections, three prime ministers and a big piece of the nation’s history. Fresh, funny and authoritative, Wells speaks in both official languages on all of the matters of the day, from Canada’s position in the global economy, to the inside scoop on what’s really happening inside the Parliament buildings and beyond. Paul shared his take on the next steps for the EU following Brexit:

Quick — who’s the president of the European Council? How about the president of the European Commission? Which is more powerful? How were they selected? For terms of how long? What countries are they from?

While we’re at it, please discuss the terms acquis communautaireand “snakes in a tunnel” as they relate to European enlargement and convergence. Explain why France and Germany use the euro currency even though neither met the criteria for joining the euro group on the day it was created or, in France’s case, on most days since. Explain what good it did — if any — for the people of France and The Netherlands to reject the proposed European constitution in separate referendums in 2005.

If you score better than, say, three out of nine on my little quiz, then you can go ahead and keep insulting the intelligence of everyone in the U.K. who voted to leave the EU in Thursday’s referendum.

Cards on table: If I were British I would have voted to remain in the European Union. I’m upset at the victory of anti-EU forces, worried about what comes next, and well aware that Leave won, in part, by peddling horror stories about immigrants and fantasies about rivers of taxpayer money that would reverse flow back to London from Brussels if only Brits shucked off the Euro yoke.

This outcome is bad for trade, opportunity, and the habits of accommodation that Europe learned slowly and at catastrophic human cost through the blood-soaked 20th century.

But this drama played itself out in the realm of politics. Most of the protagonists with microphones and podiums on either side of the campaign were politicians. And almost the only thing I know about politics is that victory must be earned.

The EU needed to make a case for itself, needed to be a felt and comprehensible necessity in the lives of its people, or something like this was always possible. The EU must still make a case for itself, if it wants to keep the British decision from spreading across the continent. (One hunch I hope pollsters will test: I suspect any party that promises an in-or-out referendum in any country will now see its voter support rise.)

And the thing about the EU is, it has often been a rickety contraption. Its decisions are inscrutable, its spokesmen distant, its processes hard to learn and quick to change, like some eternal institutional bait-and-switch. Bookstores near the vast EU campus in Brussels sell copies of The New Practical Guide to the EU Labyrinth, which has gone through 15 editions in 25 years and whose current cover illustration depicts faceless figures groping their way up and down staircases that run in every direction, like an Escher print. And that’s a book written by and for people who think the EU is a great thing!

Meanwhile, the EU and all the people in it have been buffeted by crises and outrages that could hardly fail to leave an impression on ordinary voters. A banking crisis that rose out of nowhere in 2008, despite the bland assurances of experts in nice suits. A near-constant terrorism alert that erupts now and then into slaughter. Wave after wave of refugees and migrants, on a scale far beyond anything Canada has chosen, to its credit, to shoulder.

Over the years the same leaders who were widely known to be scoundrels at home — smirking Nicolas Sarkozy and convicted Silvio Berlusconi and poor, lost David Cameron — would troop off to Brussels to meet late into the night, and who could explain their decisions? Who could believe these goofs were building something better together than the messes they had left at home?

Sure, the enemies of Europe told lies and sold fear. But everyone lies in campaigns. Everyone peddles fear, in crude or genteel ways. The 65-year project of European construction must be sturdy enough to withstand those assaults or they will wash it away. A nation, the French historian Ernest Renan wrote, is a referendum every day. The European Union, born from war as an antidote to nationalism’s worst excesses, cannot go on forever without earning the consent of the governed.

Paul Wells/Toronto Star/June 2016