BRUSSELS (Pakistan Point News / Sputnik - 11th August, 2020) The United Kingdom officially left the European Union on January 31, and although a transition period is in force until the end of the year, the lingering question that more countries could follow suit continues to trouble the European Commission.
The June 2016 referendum in the United Kingdom was a historic moment. Polling data showed that the race would be close, although the Leave campaign eventually ran out winners, garnering 52 percent of the vote.
After three-and-a-half years of political wrangling and delays, Boris Johnson took the reins as Prime Minister in July 2019 and quickly set to work on getting the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement Bill through the House of Commons. Johnson got pushed back in parliament but called a snap election that eventually gave him the considerable majority he needed to get the legislation through the Commons.
As Johnson was finally able to get Brexit done, other countries in Europe have been keen observers, especially amid the ongoing coronavirus disease crisis, which has seen the EU face criticism over its handling of the pandemic.
On Tuesday, the Euronews broadcaster published the results of a poll conducted in July that gauged public support for the EU in the bloc's so-called Big Four, comprising Germany, Italy, France, and Spain.
The poll, which surveyed 1,500 people in each of the four aforementioned countries, was conducted by the Redfield and Wilton Strategies research firm from July 17-18, one week before the bloc's leaders met in Brussels and eventually agreed on a COVID-19 recovery fund worth a total of 750 billion Euros ($882 billion).
Respondents were asked whether they would support their country leaving the European Union should the United Kingdom and its economy prosper over the next five years following the completion of Brexit. Italian nationals voiced the strongest approval for potentially withdrawing from the bloc, as 45 percent of respondents said that they agreed or strongly agreed on leaving.
France was in second place, as 38 percent of respondents would give their approval to leaving the bloc, with Spain in third place with 37 percent. Just 30 percent of German respondents said that they would be in favor of leaving the EU.
COVID-19 RECOVERY FUND TOO LITTLE TOO LATE
The European Commission has faced criticism for its response to the coronavirus disease pandemic, particularly when it came to the slow response in mobilizing the bloc's resources to assist other member states.
Even the bloc's recovery fund, which was eventually agreed upon in July, has been criticized by Italian lawmakers, despite the southern European country receiving the largest share of the emergency funds.
However, Italian politician and member of the Chamber of Deputies for the Lega party, Paolo Grimoldi, told Sputnik in July that the funds will be slow to arrive and will be contingent on Rome making significant cuts and giving the so-called European troika a say on raising the country's retirement age.
The bloc's disastrous handling of the current pandemic has only intensified long-running tensions with several aspects of the European project.
The EU's southern countries, which include Greece, Spain, and Italy, have previously expressed concern that the bloc's common Currency has been detrimental to them, and only benefits Germany and other northern countries.
"It is true that the euro currency is a problem for the weaker countries in the south. The currency is too 'strong' for them, and the Italians have lost their possibility of devaluing their currency to become attractive to investors and tourists. The country often devalued the lira in the past and people see it now as a blessed period in the past, which it was not," Etienne de Callatay, chief economist at Orcadia Asset Management in Luxembourg, told Sputnik.
According to Gilles Lebreton, a member of the European Parliament for France's National Rally (RN) party and law professor at the University of Le Havre, the euro has created multiple issues for France and its southern neighbors, although it remains unlikely that the currency will be jettisoned.
"The euro is a burden for France and the countries of the south, but its abandonment would be seen as a dangerous adventure by the majority of the electorate. Pensioners remember how weak the franc could be in several periods in the past," Lebreton told Sputnik.
Rather than push to leave the EU entirely, RN's leader Marine Le Pen has since switched to calling for reforming the bloc from the inside, the lawmaker added.
"This is what explains the refocusing of Marine Le Pen's RN after the 2017 presidential election, which was lost by Marine to Emmanuel Macron: it went from a pure and hard Frexit project to a program of transformation of the EU from the inside ... I was one of those who advocated this development, against the trend of [Florian] Philippot who has since left the National Rally," Lebreton remarked.
Given that Italian respondents topped the Euronews-commissioned poll in their discontent with Brussels, it raises the question of whether the southern European country could choose to leave the bloc, in a so-called Italexit.
"I don't believe in an Italexit, because Italy is in the monetary union, from which it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to get out. In case of a vote, they would think twice, even if they feel like throwing Europe overboard," de Callatay commented.
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has given his firm backing to the EU's recovery fund in the weeks that have followed since the deal was reached. According to Pietro Fiocchi, a member of the European Parliament for the Brothers of Italy (FdI) party, the prime minister's return from Brussels with more than 200 billion euros in agreed support has quelled the population's discontent slightly.
"This is the summer recess and although Italians are not happy with Europe, their opposition is not too serious now. It is the holidays and Conte has come back with money from Brussels," Fiocchi told Sputnik.
Commenting on a potential referendum on EU membership in the southern European country, the lawmaker said that he believed the remain side of the argument would emerge victorious.
"If there was a referendum on leaving the union, I think the result would be a small victory for the 'Remain' side, something like 51/49 percent," Fiocchi remarked.
However, this situation could change in the coming fall, when Conte will be expected to distribute the funds across the country, and every region will be expecting their share.
"But it could change in the fall. If the government of Conte does not manage to make sure that the money really reaches the population in all territories, in all cities and regions, there would be a strong backlash and anger towards Brussels. Wait and see," the lawmaker said.
Salvini, who served as the deputy prime minister until this time, was hugely influential, although de Callatay asserted that his ability to shape the political discourse, particularly on the topic of EU membership, has since waned.
"When Matteo Salvini was at the top of his popularity, there was a risk, a small risk of seeing an Italexit happen, but not anymore," the financial expert said.
Maximilian Krah, a member of the European Parliament representing the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, was much more critical of the EU's recovery fund and its potential to plunge the Italian economy into debt.
"The funds allocated in the present emergency situation won't reach the Italian citizens. The money lavishly spent by the European Commission to woo the Italians and 'buy' their support for Europe could very well fall apart when they realize the funds have been mostly diverted. Italy will never be able to pay back its debt, except through massive inflation," the lawmaker said.
BREXIT HISTORIC MOMENT FOR EUROPEAN UNION
The United Kingdom is the first country to have chosen to leave the European Union after being a member. While talks are ongoing for Serbia, North Macedonia, and Albania to join the bloc, having the people of one of the union's largest economies choose to leave presents many pressing issues for Brussels.
"The EU has still not grasped the sign of this historically unique Brexit process. People tend to believe that the UK's exit was some kind of industrial accident and continue to work tirelessly on the incapacitation and gradual dissolution of our nation-states," Joerg Meuthen, AfD co-leader, said to Sputnik earlier, adding that Brexit was a "final warning" to the EU.
Meuthen also said that the UK's economy could prosper while the rest of the bloc stalls, adding that the EU has previously subdued the will of the people.
Benjamin Biard, a political analyst based at the Socio-Political Research and Information Centre (CRISP) in Brussels, said that the bloc is seeing a marginalization of those who are in favor of the disintegration of the European project.
"I don't have a crystal ball and won't make a prediction. We did not expect the success of Brexit ... We have to be careful, but we are witnessing a marginalization of elements in favor of leaving the Union," Biard told Sputnik.
The analyst said that Nigel Farage had a great say in the course of the referendum, adding that Europe's other leading euroskeptics have failed to follow in the current Brexit Party leader's footsteps.
"It was not the same in the genesis of Brexit. Nigel Farage, boss of the UK Independence Party and then of the Brexit Party, had avoided any conflict on the left or the right by remaining solely focused on leaving the EU, to cast a broad net, and he had succeeded in convincing Conservative and Labour voters," Biard commented.
One country of concern for the European Commission will be Poland. The EU's COVID-19 recovery fund comes with a so-called rule of law mechanism, that would make access to grants contingent on member states abiding by and implementing a set of European values. It is believed that Warsaw is one of the targets of this legislation.
Biard agreed that a so-called Polexit could be possible, adding that sovereignist forces can often prosper in former socialist countries.
"Polexit is also a possibility. The relationship of citizens to the state and the notions of democracy and freedom in Poland and Central Europe are different, given their recent history. It is easier for sovereignist forces to impose themselves," the political analyst said.
The end of the Brexit transition period is approaching rapidly on the horizon. Negotiations between London and Brussels have yet to yield substantive results, and time is running out for both parties to conclude a host of agreements, the most pressing of which is a comprehensive free trade deal.
The United Kingdom will become free of all EU regulations at the end of the year and will head into 2021 looking to forge its own path. Other countries will be watching on to judge the success of London's decision before choosing whether to follow in their footsteps.