Image PABLO GARRIGOS/BLOOMBERG VIA GETTY
September 20 2018, by Iain Martin
May was rebuffed by the EU 27 but must remind herself that their insecure, blundering club has overreached itself.
If you were running a major international organisation facing an extremely difficult set of elections next May, with populists on the rise on the back of voter anger about elite arrogance, would you make your latest summit modest and dial down on the razzamatazz? Or would you put the assembled leaders on the set of The Sound of Music and treat them on the way in like film stars?
The answer is obvious. With its usual tin ear for the menacing mood music, the EU under the Austrian rotating presidency opted for expensive glitz in Salzburg this week, despite its leaders meeting amid an epic mess on migration, with eastern European states in open rebellion, and the second largest financial contributor to the club (Britain) sitting there forlorn like Rodgers and Hammerstein’s lonely goatherd.
Theresa May’s position has become even more isolated and lonely, with the EU 27 in the form of Donald Tusk, European Council president, saying yesterday that her proposed Brexit deal — the Chequers compromise keeping the UK aligned with EU rules on goods — “will not work”. But with Britain in its typically shambolic, improvised fashion preparing to say “so long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, adieu”, it is easy to overlook just what a mess the EU and our supposedly glorious European home is in.
Ahead of those European elections at the end of May next year, the fear among mainstream politicians is of another populist surge potentially altering the shape of the European parliament and poisoning, from the EU perspective, the atmosphere in Brussels. Underpinning the concern is the remarkable rise of the Visegrad Four — that is Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. They are hardline opponents of migration and in conflict with Brussels. They oppose the EU’s proposal to expand its own border force. They don’t trust it to do the job properly.
When the European parliament moved this month to censure Viktor Orban, the Hungarian leader, over concerns about the erosion of the rule of law in Hungary, the four fought back. The Hungarian government this week launched a campaign calling on Hungarians to “defend Hungary!” and castigating the Green Dutch MEP Judith Sargentini, who had led the criticism of Orban.
This week the Czech prime minister Andrej Babis backed Orban and criticised the EU: “This nonsense just ushers in negative sentiment into the European Union”, Babis said, with the air of someone who knows that the European parliament’s agitation against the Visegrad group only helps him with his domestic audience.