Can Europe Make It?

Brexit might provide an opportunity for genuine change in Europe

At a time when the EU and its members are struggling with crises and therefore have more than enough on their plates, British voters decided to hand it yet another major crisis.

Ragnar Weilandt
3 July 2016

General De Gaulle speaking on BBC Radio during the war.BBC Broadcasting House/ Wikicommons. Some rights reserved.Britain’s history in post-war Europe is that of a rocky relationship. It stood on the side-lines when the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) was created in 1951, and chose not to join the six states founding the European Economic Community in 1957. “I never understood why the British did not join the European Community, which was so much in their interest” the ECSC’s architect Jean Monnet once said. “I came to the conclusion that it must have been because it was the price of victory – the illusion that you could maintain what you had, without change.”

They eventually changed their minds. But although five of the six founding members supported British participation in the European project, French president Charles de Gaulle vetoed it twice. It took political change in France and a major effort in British diplomacy to make way for a third and finally successful attempt.

“Letting England in (…) would be for the six members to pre-emptively agree to all kinds of tricks, delays, and pretences that would attempt to mask the destruction of a structure that was built through so much hardship and on so much hope” Charles de Gaulle replied to a reporter asking for the motives of his veto. And: “For the British Islands to truly moor themselves to the continent, they will have to undergo another very vast, very deep transformation.”

De Gaulle’s reluctance towards British participation in the European integration process primarily stemmed from his ambition for France and indeed for himself to lead Europe. Ironically, he even shared the British opposition to supranational policy-making. However, half a century later one cannot but admit that his forecast on how British membership would affect the European Union was fairly accurate.

In contrast to most other EU member states, the UK’s expectations of the EU were always mainly transactional rather than emotional or ideological. The founding members created the ECSC to end centuries of war. Southern European countries joined the Common Market in order to stabilize their democracies. The central and eastern Europeans joined the EU to adapt the Western European political and economic system and to end decades of Russian domination. Most member states and their citizens cherished the Union’s promotion of peace, freedom, democracy and human rights. In contrast, British elites and citizens primarily cared about market access.

The UK’s transactional expectations influenced its action. Many great continental leaders were inspired by the European idea. While it did not always influence their daily policy and rhetoric, it often guided important decisions and major speeches. In contrast, British leaders were largely driven by a continuous assessment of short-term costs and benefits. Moreover, they frequently resorted to cheap populism at the cost of the EU for the sake of short-term gains in domestic politics.

Since the UK joined the Common Market, it has used its status and its power as a big member state to secure special treatment at the cost of its fellow member states. Moreover, it opted-out of many of the EU’s basic structures such as Schengen and the Euro. In doing so, the UK set a precedent for smaller states’ cherry-picking. Moreover, it spearheaded various attempts to slow down political integration. Hence, successive British governments contributed to the inadequacy of the European institutional set-up that caused the various crises the EU is currently facing as well as its institutional inability to deal with them. It even actively obstructed the EU’s crisis management, notably by trying to block the fiscal compact in 2011 or more recently by refusing to participate in the European system of quotas to resettle refugees.

And at a time when the EU and its members are struggling with these crises and therefore have more than enough on their plates, British voters decide to hand it yet another major crisis. A crisis that will not only take away major political and administrative resources desperately needed to fix the Union, but also one that undermines and potentially even endangers the European project as a whole. Much like Charles de Gaulle predicted.

The UK certainly made its fair share of contributions to European integration. Notably it pushed for completing the single market and made the case for Eastern and Southern enlargement. It is a sad historical irony that diffuse fears of immigrants from these countries ended up being the reason for many voters’ decision to back Leave. However, in terms of transforming the EU into a well-functioning political entity, the UK has become a major stumbling block.

A stumbling block that might now disappear. Of course Brexit is a major blow for the Union. It empowers populist right-wing Eurosceptic movements across Europe and changes the delicate equilibrium between the EU’s remaining member states. Yet it seems unlikely that the Union will retain fundamental damage. Continental European leaders seem to be showing considerable political determination to keep the Union together.

Euroscepticism might be on the rise across Europe, but the continental debate on the EU is not even remotely as detached from reality as it is in the UK. Except for those on the far right, Eurosceptics usually question individual aspects of the EU such as the euro or the recent austerity policy rather than membership. What is more, tabloids spreading lies and myths on the EU to the same extent as The Sun, The Express or The Daily Mail either don’t exist or are not quite as influential in other member states. Finally, the countries displaying the strongest degree of Euroscepticism tend to be those most dependent on EU funding, limiting both their incentive to leave as well as the impact their exit would have on the Union.

Brexit is a catastrophe. But a close win for Remain would not exactly have been a triumph either. Neither would it have weakened the likes of Nigel Farage, nor would it have strengthened the European idea. In contrast, Brexit will finally showcase what the European Union actually means for the well-being of its members. It will shed light on the benefits it entails – benefits that are largely taken for granted. And it will show in all brutality what it means to give up on them.

The current chaos in Britain does not go unnoticed. Neither will Brexit’s medium to long term impact on the UK. If the damage to continental Europe and its economy can be contained, Brexit might even reinvigorate sympathies for European integration.

The best option the UK can hope for now is to get a deal like Switzerland or Norway. If it wants to retain free movement of goods, services and capital, then it will also have to accept free movement of persons. Access to the single market will require adhering to much of the EU’s key legislation and paying into the EU’s budget. Hence there will be few savings to be spent in Britain, let’s say on the NHS. At the same time the UK will not be at the table when decisions on the EU legislation it will have to follow or the EU’s budget it will have to contribute to are made. Meanwhile, the UK might lose the passporting rights enabling London-based banks to operate freely across Europe’s financial markets and which would prompt financial institutions to relocate parts of their staff and operations to the Eurozone. Obviously experts predicted all that before the referendum. But then again expert opinion wasn’t very much in demand.

Continental Europe might develop more favourably. Brexit is unlikely to be followed by a leap towards federalism in Europe. However, the European Union will face far less political resistance to further integration and to the creation of economic governance able to deal more efficiently with the Eurozone crisis and potentially prevent further ones. Moreover, it will face less obstacles to developing its social dimension, offering the opportunity to win back trust within its populations.

Over the next one or two decades, the British public might realize that sitting at the table in Brussels were worth the few more directives and regulations that EU membership entails in comparison to the deal they will have by then. They may even realize that participation in Europe’s political integration is more than just a necessary evil. The UK’s demographic development will work in favour of such developments.

At some point, Britain could consider applying for membership again. It will face the same accession process as all other candidate countries. It will have to implement the entire Acquis Communautaire without getting any relevant opt-outs or rebates. And then one day, it might rejoin what has hopefully become a more integrated, more social and much better governed European Union. One that possibly already has Scotland as a member.

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