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Brexit, populism wake-up calls to European integration
Last Updated: 2016-12-22 20:49 | Xinhua
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Brexit and the rise of populism across Europe are wake-up calls to European integration which is already under the converging challenges of stagnated economy, anti-immigrant sentiment and terrorism, a veteran official of the European Parliament told Xinhua in a recent interview.

Geoffrey Harris, who started his political career in 1976 and retired this year as Deputy Head of Office of the European Parliament Liaison Office with the U.S. Congress in Washington, lamented that people overlooked the potential of negative backlashes in the process of the European integration.

"I would not blame any individual. What I blame or regret is that people did not take notice of warning signs over the years," said Harris, who now teaches at Vesalius College in Brussels and the College of Europe in Bruges.

Harris has warned against the trend of populism in his book "The Dark side of Europe -- the extreme right in Europe today" published in 1993.

He noted that the troubles the European Union (EU) faces now are not unprecedented, and the idea that the European integration could provide opportunity for extreme right parties and populism to gain credibility and support is also not new.

He said in early 1990s as now the then European Community (EC) was grappling with a recession and an enhanced fear of immigration. The war in the former Yugoslavia was leading to fears of uncontrolled influx of refugees, just as now there are fears of influx of refugees fleeing the civil war in Middle East and North Africa.

He recalled that in 1992 the then French President Francois Mitterrand called a referendum on the Maastricht treaty, a milestone document hammered out by the then 12-member EC in December 1991 to create the EU and the single European Currency, the euro.

"This was on the euro and it's a French project. It was not a German idea or a British idea, but the French people themselves almost dropped it, "Harris said.

On September 20, 1992, the French in a referendum voted to adopt the Maastricht Treaty by a 51-to-49 margin. This narrow margin is almost the same as the outcome in the June 2016 Brexit referendum in favor of quitting the EU.

As a British citizen, Harris opined that Britain's leaving of the 28-member bloc is a "tragedy", saying, "Britain has been a leading power in Europe, playing a very important role in fighting Fascism and Nazis. To be on the outside, it's not a very comfortable position."

"Somebody in Britain would say, 'we voted for Brexit, but we did not vote ourselves to be poor, we didn't vote ourselves to have an economic crisis'," he said, stressing that the real consequences of the Brexit maybe take some time to see.

Theresa May's government is involved in a legal battle on whether it can begin the process to pull Britain out of the EU without a parliament approval. The Supreme Court is expected to give its rule in January after holding a four-day hearing in early December.

The High Court ruled on Nov. 3 that Theresa May's government cannot use a royal prerogative to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty that starts the Brexit process.

Article 50 sets out the procedure to be followed if an EU member state decides to leave the bloc. Once the article is triggered, a two-year clock running starts.

"Mrs. May has a small majority in the parliament, but there are many conservatives beginning to wonder about this; The Labour party also has been hesitant. Nobody in this time wants to say that's a stupid decision which must be unchangeable," said Harris.

"Obviously if Britain does leave, that is bad news," He said, underlining that it will to some degree legitimize nationalist politics, especially in view of the French presidential election slated for next April.

According to a recent Elabe survey, with an expected intention of vote up to 28 percent, Marine Le Pen, head of far-right National Front party (FN), is almost certain to cruise to the second round of the election.

"Mrs. May is not like Mrs Le Pen, but the Brexit kind of give legitimacy that maybe the EU will not be going to survive, that's very bad in my opinion," argued Harris.

Asked whether Marine Le Pen is possible to win the French presidential election, Harris said: "She is candidate, she has lots of support. It would be unwise to make predictions, but it would be silly to exclude that possibility, and the different leaders have to work out how to respond. "

"Marine Le Pen has advantages. A main advantage is that she never exercise any power at national level; she has no negative," Harris said, comparing her with French Former Prime Minister Francois Fillon, who won the center-right Republicans party's primary runoff on November 27 to represent the biggest opposition party in the 2017 French presidential race.

Harris warned that terrorists sometimes choose their timings very well and might try to influence the French election, if they want polarization in the country and the EU at large.

"Terrorism, economy, immigration -- these three things together make an explosive cocktail," he said.

Just in the evening of the day of the interview, a truck ploughed into a crowded Christmas market in Berlin, leaving at least 12 people dead and some 50 injured.

The sense of insecurity, triggered by terrorist attacks involved immigrants and a possible major economic crisis "because of a shaky euro", will drive voters under the flag of populist parties like FN, Harris explained.

Regarding the euro, the symbol of European monetary union, Harris opined that the whole structure of the single currency has not worked out as planned, saying, "political union should come ahead of the monetary union; has a money without a government has great risks."

He mentioned that former British Prime Minister Tony Blair wanted to hold a referendum about the euro but eventually had to drop the plan because of his financial minister's disagreement.

"Most people in Britain would not agree with that at all. We don't want a political union anyway, and certainly we don't want a euro either, but that's a question about leadership."

"Tony Blair was the kind of person to provide the leadership, but because of the Iraq war and the whole things, he missed his chance, (and) became unpopular in Britain, and then became unpopular in Europe."

"The train left at the station, but he wasn't on the train," Harris said.

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