“There is a real storm, a real tempest. The European Union is in an existential crisis.” Georgi Pirinski, former Bulgarian Deputy Prime Minister and current MEP, as we spoke over coffee in London after he gave a speech in Parliament which strongly made the case for Britain to remain, a case which he wasted little time in explaining to me.
This began with the reflection that “maternity leave and many of the other labour and social rights which are currently regulated at EU level, if left to the tender care of personalities like the former Mayor of London, would not be so well defended. Plus, the European Investment Bank, which spends over €80 Billion, gives over 60 per cent of that sum to the five largest economies, which includes Britain. I do believe that the European Union, even with all of its shortcomings and deficiencies, still represents a community of nations with a very strong commitment to social equality and solidarity.”
I then ask Georgi why, given all of these positives, there is such pervasive anti-EU sentiment in Britain and throughout the continent? “It has to do with the idea Boris Johnson is expressing that the EU is a place where money is not spent for any good reason and that it is hamstringing local governments. However, sitting on the budgetary control committee as I do, whose principal exercise is to regulate how the European Commission is actually spending the EU budget, I know there is a scrupulous review of all spending. I don’t think the British public is aware of the degree to which EU institutions justify every euro of money they spend. I also think the pressures of everyday life, of economic insecurity, of anti-establishment sentiment, provide a base for Brexit to build on without any rational underpinning. I am not though willing to be critical of British people – I don’t blame them. I understand why they are in this mood given the widening economic and social disparities.”
This mood has helped populists such as Nigel Farage, whose conduct in the European Parliament has left Georgi less than impressed. “He basically enjoys himself. He likes to debate informally with Juncker. He is there to make an impression back home, he is not there to contribute. I think it is a question of proportion and he and his colleagues go way beyond proportion. The fact is though that they were elected – the genuine voice of a part of society. Certainly, being in the European Parliament is a way of finding expression for their concerns. But the questions start appearing when you ask why they are actually there? Are they there to do away with the EU? Once you enter an institution there are basic principles and norms and you can’t just say they’re rubbish.”
I ask what the general sentiment is in Brussels towards the possibility of a Brexit. Georgi explains that of the majority who want Britain to stay, many “are just keeping quiet, waiting to see what’s going to happen. They don’t want to do anything that would raise tensions. After all, Britain is an important member of the European Union and there is a very real risk of a domino effect if it leaves.”
Yet, at the end of our discussion, Georgi concedes that “the rational arguments so far are not working.” They are failing to set out the benefits of the EU or how it is not solely to blame for the current economic and social climate. Instead he insists there must be an appeal “to the emotional side of the argument” to prevent Britain from leaving and the existential threat this poses to the EU.