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Margareta Pagano: EU must learn to change but without the Brits, it’s doomed

MARGARETA PAGANO
Long goodbye: French intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy has written a play about Brexit: PA

What a turn up for the books. First, Hans-Olaf Henkel, one of Germany’s leading industrialists and member of the European Parliament, says that Britain quitting the EU is an epic disaster because with us leaving, “the last country with common sense leaves the EU”.

And now Bernard-Henri Lévy, the great French intellectual, warns that Europe will collapse if Brexit goes ahead. In a dynamite interview at the weekend, Lévy said that the EU will collapse if Britain leaves because it is the brain of Europe, and “when the body is deprived of its brain and its heart, its spirit dies”.

He carried on: “Europe is unthinkable without Great Britain. Everyone who reflects deeply about Europe knows that the UK is its beating heart.”

So disturbed is Lévy, that he is writing a play in the hope of changing our minds: Last Exit before Brexit.

Phew. If the Royal Wedding didn’t a bring a tear to your dry Anglo-Saxon eye, then Lévy’s words would surely do so.

How nice to be appreciated, particularly for our brains and heart.

Like Lévy, Henkel praises our British civilising sensibleness, and the manner in which we brought pragmatism to the EU, helping to shape thinking from the single market to opening up the EU’s capital markets to financial services.

Behind the scenes, Henkel has been lobbying Berlin and Brussels to come up with a new deal for Britain to keep us in: he calls it the Battle for Britain.

The former boss of IBM and the Bundesverband der Deutschen Industrie — the Federation of German Industry — met Theresa May and the Brexit team recently to say that it’s still not too late to change our mind.

A Remainer who should also appeal to Brexiteers, he blames Brussels for Brexit, saying David Cameron was ahead of his time in asking for controls on immigration although he didn’t have the cojones to play hard-ball.

Now it’s not just the Visegrad Group — the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia and Hungary — that want immigration controls and a stop to further integration, but nearly every EU country including, most poignantly, Italy.

Even Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister and longest-serving liberal head of a European government, is increasingly outspoken about how the EU is not “an unstoppable train speeding towards federalism”, and that France and Germany are not the only EU countries which matter.

Could Italy’s new government be the flash point? The coalition led by Luigi di Maio of MoVimento Cinque Stelle (M5S), together with Matteo Salvini’s League, want cuts to immigration and debt forgiveness of up to €250 billion (£220 billion) among other demands.

Though both M5S and the League have toned down their anti-euro rhetoric — for now — they demand a monetary union “appropriate for the present geopolitical and economic imbalances and consistent with the objectives of the economic union” going back to pre-Maastricht days.

That’s code for breaking budget and fiscal rules.

Don’t forget the “V” in M5S is in upper case because it stands for Vaffa! or “F*** off” — the group’s slogan. M5S’s policies may be an intriguing hotchpotch of Left and Right-wing measures but they are united in not liking banks or big business or corrupt political parties and politicians. It may be popular in the UK to describe their policies as populist but that’s a facile moniker as their aspirations are more subtle than the criticism implies.

How far will Italy push their demands with the EU? Who knows. But what is sure is that the EU ringmasters will not sit comfortably with one of Europe’s largest economies ripping up the rule-book. Italy is not Greece, where the Germans could turn the money taps on and off.

The more pertinent question to ask is why Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel appear so tone deaf to the competing demands for reform. What will make them realise they must change the EU’s direction of travel or, as Lévy warns, die without us?

There is still time for original thinking, to work with the UK on a bespoke Efta-type deal but also to slow down the train. They must know that great line in Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s beautiful novel, The Leopard, which tells the story of Sicilian society during the risorgimento: “If we want things to stay as they are, they will have to change.” Or else they’ll be changed for us — sadly often by force.