The week in Brussels by Elaine Cruikshanks: It’s like 1998 all over again


Cast your mind back to 1998. The Good Friday Accord brought peace to Northern Ireland, ten Member States ratified the Treaty of Amsterdam and Zinedine Zidane propelled France to glory in the World Cup final. But the cheery bubble was soon to burst. After months of intense speculation, Geri Halliwell (or Ginger Spice) announced that she was to leave the world’s leading pop group, the Spice Girls. I’m sure that you, like me, can remember the sinking feeling you had when you heard the news. The big question for the remaining members of the group was - what to do next? 

Fast forward to the present, and you’ll see that Europe’s leaders find themselves with a similar dilemma. On Monday, Angela Merkel, Francois Hollande, Mariano Rajoy and Paolo Gentiloni met in Versailles to discuss what they might do about Europe’s very own “Ginger Spice” (a.k.a. Brexit Britain). The result of the meeting was an endorsement of a multispeed Europe, in which Member States are given free reign to pursue European integration at their own preferred pace. The aim was to show a united front, and that Europe is taking account of the current climate of opinion on national versus EU decision-making.

The new ‘big four’ weren’t the only ones weighing in on the departure of “Ginger Spice” this week. EU leaders will surely have read Jean Claude Juncker’s paper on the Future of Europe, which lays out five possible paths for the EU to follow in the years to come. The different options include: carrying on with the status quo; reducing the EU to just the single market; going ahead with a multispeed Europe; reducing the reach of the EU; or drastically increasing the reach of the EU. Discussing the paper, Juncker struck an optimistic tone about the EU’s future, stressing that this “is the start of the process, not the end.”

The departure of “Ginger Spice” from the EU has also spurred on power struggles elsewhere. At the European Council meeting this week, the spotlight was on Council President, Donald Tusk, who successfully survived an attempt by Polish Prime Minister, Beata Szydlo, to replace him with MEP Jacek Saryusz-Wolski. The showdown left Poland isolated, even from its Hungarian allies, and cost Saryusz-Wolski his position as a Vice-President of the EPP.

Looking ahead, Brussels will continue to mull over existential questions in the run-up to the Treaty of Rome’s 60th anniversary celebrations, which are taking place on 26 March. Also looming are the forthcoming Dutch and French elections, which have stimulated something of a pause in the Commission’s willingness to take decisions on any issues which might be deemed “sensitive” in the run-up to these elections.

Meanwhile, centre-stage is Mrs May’s imminent triggering of Article 50. This is unfortunately where the Spice Girls analogy ends – as far as I recall, Geri Halliwell didn’t enter into two gruelling years of tense negotiation when she made her fateful decision back in 1998.

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