EU’s Weakening Supranational Authority: From Brexit to Hungary’s Rejection of Migration Quota

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Vie Internationale with Bola Akinterinwa Telephone : 0807-688-2846 e-mail: bolyttag@yahoo.com

Supranational authority in international relations is about the power ceded by member states of an organisation to the organisation. It also refers to the organisation itself.

The word supranational is a coinage from supra and nation. Supra simply means above. Consequently, supranational, as an adjective, means above the nation. In this article, we use supranational to refer to both meanings: the extent of power or sovereignty transferred by a member or group of members of an organisation and the organisation to which they belong.

Supranational authority raises many questions about the relationship between the extent to which a state still remains the basic unit of analysis in international relations, on the one hand, and the cooperation organisations to which nation-states have ceded part of their sovereignty, on the other. One major reason for the establishment of an organisation is to seek cooperation for purposes of protection and advancement of mutual interest. An organisation necessarily becomes supranational when its original members either endorse the agreement establishing the organisation by initialling, signing and ratifying, or when other countries accept to accede to the agreement when it is open to general signature.

In this regard, the European Union (EU) is a good case of a supranational authority, the genesis of which is traceable to the 1951 economic cooperation programmes and especially to the March 25 Rome Treaty which established the European Economic Community (EE) of six countries.

The membership of the EEC increased gradually from 6 (Belgium, France, Italy, Luxemburg, Netherlands and West Germany) on January 1, 1958; to 9 (with the addition of Denmark, Ireland and the United Kingdom) on January 1, 1973; then to 10 with the admission of Greece on January 1, 1981; then to 12 with the accession of Portugal and Spain on January 1, 1986; to 15 with Austria, Finland and Sweden also joining on January 1, 1995; to 25 with the general accession on May 1, 2004 of Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia; to 27 with the admission of Bulgaria and Romania on January 1, 2007, and finally to 28 with the admission of Croatia on January 1, 2013. On June 23, 2016 the British voted in favour of withdrawing their membership of the EU. The process of the withdrawal is referred to as Brexit, that is, Britain’s exit and this new coinage has been admitted into the political lexicon of EU-Britain relations.

What is particularly important to note about the EU as at today is that the Brexit appears to serve as the beginning of EU’s membership dilemma. The EU faces the challenge of a weakening membership, and especially the erosion of its supranational authority. Two main reasons explain this observation: there is no reason to suggest that Britain will suffer any major development setbacks following Brexit and secondly, hostility vis-a-vis continued membership of the EU is on the increase in terms of rejection of EU directives. Post-Brexit developments and the Hungarian referendum on the rejection of the EU imposed migrant quota will serve as case study here.

Post-Brexit developments
Britain has been waxing stronger shortly before and after the Brexit. Many were the forecasts that Britain would be in a serious dilemma should the British vote for withdrawal from the EU. It was argued that the intention to vote could not but be a major source of fear. But untrue, the predictions were far from the reality. For instance, the BBC reports have it that ‘the UK services sector grew 0.4% in July, much more strongly than expected in the wake of June’s vote to leave the EU, showing that consumers carried on spending as normal after the Brexit vote.’ Additionally, ‘the GDP grew by 0.7% in the three months to the end of June, up from the 0.6% first estimated.

In fact, even though many businesses, including two major Wall Street companies, have warned of possible damage to the UK financial services industry and the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) has shown pessimism in terms of impact of the Brexit, the BBC report has it further that ‘the OECD has gone back on its warning that the UK would suffer immediately from a Brexit vote and has revised its 2016 GDP growth forecasts for the UK slightly upwards from 1.7% to 1.8%.’ As at end of September 2016, ‘consumer confidence index is ac to its pre-Brexit vote levels in September, jumping six points inn its biggest monthly rise since June 2015.’

More interestingly, the post-Brexit environment has witnessed Prime Minister Theresa May’s government reducing interest rates from 0.5% to 0.25% in August, which was the lowest interest rate since 2009; the pound sterling significantly dropped on June 24 to a three-year low of $1.2869 in August but bounced back in September 2016.

Again, even though Prime Minister May has said that she does not have the intention before 2017 to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty which is required before final negotiations can begin, 57% spike in hate crime was recorded within the first four days after Brexit; the numbers of migrants coming to the UK from Poland and seven other European countries have been on the decline while those from Bulgaria and Romania are on the increase, hitting a record level of 60,000 people. Britain’s trade deficit which was about £5.1 billion in June 2016 is also declining.

With much confidence, on September 21, 2016 Prime Minister May told the UN General Assembly that ‘the UK has always been an outward-facing, global partner at the heart of international efforts to secure peace and prosperity for all our people. And that is how we will remain. for when the British people voted to leave the EU, they did not vote to turn inwards,’ and therefore that the UK would be very ‘confident, strong and dependable in preparation for the negotiations with the EU.

The implications of the foregoing cannot be far-fetched: withdrawal of membership appears to be a source of new strength for the withdrawing state while the organisation from which the membership is withdrawn is necessarily weakened. In an attempt to mitigate some of the effects, EU policy response is to make withdrawal negotiations very difficult for the UK, President François Hollande of France has requested that the UK should be made to pay heavily for leaving the EU. As he put it, ‘we need to remain strong. If not, we will threaten the very principles of the European Union. That could lead to other countries or regions wanting to leave the EU to gain so-called benefits but without any inconvenience or rules.’ More interestingly, President Hollande said ‘there must be a threat, there must be a risk, there be a price. Otherwise we will be in a negotiation that cannot end well.’

This position of the French president should be understood against the background of Britain’s interest in remaining a member of the EU’s single market but not part of the free movement of people and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. German Chancellor, Mrs. Merkel holds this same position of President Hollande. In essence, President Hollande has argued: ‘Margaret Thatcher wanted to stay in Europe, but she wanted a cheque in return… Now the UK wants to leave and pay nothing. It’s not possible.’

The tough or ‘hard Brexit’ negotiation which the Franco-German leaders are asking for is less of a dilemma than the impending court litigation against the Brexit for Theresa May. In other words, the British Prime Minister is preparing to invoke article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty to start the negotiations for withdrawal but without consultation with the Parliament. Siobha Fenton of the Independent newspaper (London) reported on last Thursday, October 6, 2016 that case would be heard next week, on October 13. The main objective will be to compel the Prime Minister to consult with the Parliament before invoking article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty.

Besides, the Economist (London) also has it that, with Brexit, Britain wants maximum access to Europe’s single market, as well as negotiate low or no tariffs on its trade with the EU. In other words, she wants ‘to carve out a special deal with the EU, in which Britain limits immigration and determines product standards, on say- food-labelling – while still operating fully in the single market.’

Many important points are noteworthy at this juncture. First is the rivalry between national and supranational authority, between the UK and the EU. International relations in the foreseeable future is likely to witness more of this rivalry as it is the case at the level of the EU and Hungary on the matter of migration quota (vide below).

The second point is the likely rivalry between the authority of the Parliament and the authority emanating from the Brexit referendum. 52% people of the United Kingdom have voted for Brexit. The so-called ‘remainers’, mainly the 56% of the people of Northern Ireland, have gone to court to demand a parliamentary vote on Britain leaving the EU. In this regard, which is superior: the authority resulting from a referendum or the authority of the Parliament, where it is currently expected that there are more anti-Brexit sympathisers? Whatever is the answer, the proponents of Brexit have rightly posited that when the UK was to accede to the EU treaty, decision was made by the executive arm of government. The Parliament was not consulted or involved. In implementing Brexit referendum outcome, legal obstacles being put to compel consultation with the Parliament may after all not be a big deal.

Hungary and EU Migration Quota
The EU adopted a ‘refugee quota plan’ in May 2016 (Juncker Commission), a policy which not only sought to relocate 120,000 refugees from Italy and Greece but also got a majority endorsement on September 22, 2016. Hungary, and many other Eastern European members (Czech Republic, Romania, Slovakia, etc) disagree with it. Opponents of the new ‘refugee quota plan’ appear to still prefer the current policy from the EU Dublin system which considers the first country of entry as the responsible authority for assessing the applications by asylum-seekers as distinct from the new distribution criteria of the new relocation model: population, GDP, average number of past asylum applications, unemployment rates, of the destination state, etc.

The disagreement over which prompted the Hungarian Prime Minister, Mr. Viktor Orbán, to consult the people on what to do. Mr. Orbán is complaining that ‘in Brussels, they have decided that migrants who illegally entered the EU would be compulsorily distributed amongst the Member States, and on top of this, it would take place without limits.’

Hungarians were asked last Sunday, 2nd October, 2016 to respond to the question: ‘do you want to allow the EU to mandate the resettlement of non-Hungarian citizens to Hungary, without the approval of the National Assembly?’ 3.3 million voters responded ‘No’. In other words, Hungarians have directly challenged the supranational authority of the EU. In his address to the plenary session of the Parliament, Prime Minister Orbán said ‘the referendum clarified that Hungarians want to decide who Hungary would take in… There was only one honest solution. Let Hungarians decide what they want.’ More important, he said 3,282,928 people, representing ‘98% of the votes cast, and ‘if considering those who voted invalid, 92%, expressed the opinion that the decision belongs to Budapest (and not to Brussels) and this right should be fought for.’

Henceforth, the Prime Minister noted, ‘not the opinion of the government and not even the will of the representatives of the Parliament, but 3.3 million people’s will is represented in Brussels,’ especially that the number of voters in the April 12, 2003 referendum favouring membership of Hungary’s membership of the EU was only 3,056,027 which was less than the number of voters in the October 2 referendum. Turnout was 45.6%. More significantly, Mr. Orbán said no single party or party alliance ‘has received a mandate like that which Fidesz-KDNP (Governing Alliance) received yesterday (Oct 2), and that is binding.’ He said the Governing Allinace got 2.14 million votes in the parliamentary elections of 2014, thus representing 43.55% of the vote.

Lessons for Nigeria
The first lesson to insist on is that whenever there is a serious national question in the more advanced countries, there is hardly any recourse to the use of manu militari approach, especially in a democratic setting and even when national security is threatened. Plebiscites have always been organised to determine the choice and direction wanted by majority of the people. Rather than the Government making pronouncements that divide or fortifying borders that divide the people, what is required is the construction of frontiers that unite, to borrow from Professor A.I. Asiwaju’ ideas by consulting the people.

As shown in both cases of the UK and Hungary, the people of the UK decided through a 52% vote but the ‘remainers’ or the losers still opted to challenge the majority in the law court. The unanswered question of who has supremacy at the level of the Parliament and the people’s will is yet to be answered. In Hungary, however, the answer is made clear: it is the people, and this is clearly made clear in Mr. Orbán’s address to the National Parliament.

However, even though more than 90% responded ‘NO’ the percentage of turnout does not make the result valid. But can the non-participation of voters or poor turnout invalidate the will of those who came out to vote?
A second lesson is to seek a better understanding of the harsh attitude of Germany and France on Brexit. One non-deniable fact is that both countries are the architects of the current EU.

It was in an attempt to prevent unnecessary future war between them Robert Schumann of Germany and Jean Monnet of France, both Foreign Ministers, took strenuous efforts to rebuild Europe as from 1951. In fact, in 1963, both countries instituted a quarterly summit of their Heads of State with the ultimate objective of strengthening cooperation as a preventive mechanism for containing irritants in their bilateral ties. Consequently, both countries carry more of the EU burden than all others.

In the same vein, even though Nigeria and Togo started the ECOWAS, the truth is that Nigeria currently accounts for more than 30% of the budget of the organisation. This means that, sooner or later, Nigeria might be compelled to behave the Franco0German way in the event some ECOWAS members may also want withdraw their membership for whatever reasons.

ECOWAS and the African Union are on record to have been religiously copying whatever the EU does. The only difference is that some EU Member States have been complaining about the rigidity of central power in Brussels while those in African have not been doing the same. but if the ECOWAS started with 16 members but now left with 15, with Mauritania’s withdrawal, there is nothing to suggest that the ECOWAS cannot face the same EU challenge.

Put differently, the agitation for the application of the principle of reciprocity in Nigeria’s foreign policy is growing. Nigeria’s big brother policy does not appear to be enjoying popular support. If Nigeria wields the big stick, the weaker members of the ECOWAS may be compelled to review the extent to which their national interests could be sustained. By that time, the arrow of God may strike, things may begin to fall apart, there will then be no longer at ease, to borrow from Chinua Achebe.