After Brussels: Brexit and the Future of Europe

The discussion, hosted by BBC Chief Correspondent Gavin Hewitt, considered Brexit – and more generally the European project – in the context of the terrorists attacks that struck Brussels on Tuesday 22 March.

“Europe has had to face up to some of its illusions,” Hewitt said. “With the Eurozone crisis, it has had to face up to the fact that the system it built could not sustain the financial crisis. And with the financial crisis, it had to focus on whether Schengen works.”

Dutch journalist and writer Joris Luyendijk branded Brussels the “tipping point” that will seal the demise of the European project. He argued forcefully for the UK’s exit from Europe, insisting: “the heart of the English was never in it anyway.”

Luyendijk, who authored Swimming with Sharks: My Journey Into the World of the Bankers, added: “Europe is suffering from chronic problems which together form a crisis. The EU either needs to fall apart or something new should be built.”

Annalisa Piras, journalist, director and producer of The Great European Disaster Movie, is a fierce advocate of the European Union, describing its existence as a historic necessity.” The Italian filmmaker said that the crises Europe is confronting require more cooperation.

“Even if the UK leaves the EU, the threat will grow. ISIS are proving they are growing more and more ambitious and lethal by the day. The only way to respond to that threat is with more cooperation,” she said.

Toby Young rubbished Piras’ assertion: “Closer cooperation is always the answer of federalists.” The associate editor of the Spectator said: “There is a crisis of faith and that is why Europe is dying. European intellectuals have far too much faith in the EU and far too little in nationalism. They exaggerate the role the EU has played in peace, when it is more down to NATO, and don’t recognise that the rise of Islamism is because of a decline in nationalism.”

Natalie Nougayrède suggested that the EU’s failure to tackle the twin refugee and terrorism crises has boosted the far right movement across Europe. “Brussels will bring more energy to those who say each and every nation in Europe needs to bring up the drawbridge,” the Guardian leader writer and former Le Monde managing editor said.

“That is an illusion. European leaders need to send an urgent signal to voters that they are taking steps to finding at least part of the solution.” Nougayrède hailed Angela Merkel’s deal with Turkey which, despite criticism of it as a bilateral deal that undermined unity, was a sign that Europe “was trying to stem the flow of migrants.”

Young, on the other hand, said Merkel had made a series of blunders, the most serious of which was to “lay out the welcome mat for refugees without consultation with European neighbours… in order to expiate German war guilt.”

Young said that Britain’s exit from the EU would hopefully propel the institution towards reform or preferably allow it to “deflate in a peaceable way rather than erupt in violence.”

Piras struck back that “before throwing our toys out the pram”, we should ask how we can fix the European Union. Nougayrède agreed, insisting that the EU may prove to be an “easy punching ball”, but it is not true that the institution cannot reform.

Luyendijk offered a European perspective on Brexit, telling the audience that there is little interest in the UK among European leaders. “The refugee crisis is a big issue, not you,” he said.

Asked to give their predictions for how Europe would look in 10 years’ time, Luyendijk said: “We will look back and wonder why we wasted so much time on things like Brexit while other bigger issues were left untouched.”

Piras hoped to “live in a Europe that is better than the one we founded.” She said: “Europe has given us great things and tomorrow we can become better and stronger.”

Gavin Hewitt underlined the strong commitment from European leaders to the project. “Despite successive crises, the establishment won’t row back on the project. Never underestimate their commitment to make the European Union project work.”

Young said that the Leave campaign will “probably win” the European referendum. “I hope it will stimulate other independence movements in other countries which are vital for genuine reform.”

Nougayrède suggested that the EU will pull through despite the challenges it faces. “Enough people are aware that we live in a globalised world. We must act as a collective club, not individual nations. We need to think collectively to shape realities that affect us, not just be submitted to them.”