Brexit and what it means for Europe

To many continental Europeans it came as a complete surprise when the grand old United Kingdom suddenly became a real-life satire in the aftermath of the EU membership referendum. But Brexit raises some fundamental questions for the EU as a whole, and the remaining member states have to work harder to keep the promise of prosperity, security, and cohesion of the EU-27.

(© Almut Möller)

The fact that the leaders of the "Leave" campaign were completely unprepared to win was almost more of a shock to the rest of Europe than the outcome of the EU referendum itself. All of a sudden, the blustering "Brexiteers" were nowhere to be seen, the Westminster establishment was at each other’s throats, and it became obvious to the rest of the world that nobody had the faintest idea what to do after the outcome of the referendum. The UK descended into political chaos in the first few weeks after the referendum, while Europe looked on in disbelief, almost pitying the British people.

As dauntless as the British are, they are now trying to make a virtue out of necessity. When Theresa May was appointed Prime Minister soon after David Cameron's resignation, this was an initial indication of the sentiment in the British capital: although the situation is very serious, we, the British people, have achieved a lot over the course of our history. We will turn Brexit into a success.

Anyone visiting London over the summer certainly encountered bewildered "Remain" supporters but otherwise found a European capital going about its usual summertime business. Theresa May was no doubt pleased to have some breathing space to close ranks in her cabinet, insofar as it was possible to do so in the first place, and to prepare Downing Street in strategic and organisational terms for the months and years ahead.

At the end of the summer break, Theresa May invited the members of her cabinet to attend a brainstorming meeting at her country retreat "Chequers". At the beginning of the meeting, the Prime Minister announced resolutely when addressing the world public that it is now a matter of forging a new role for the UK in the world – a strong role that will benefit all the people of the United Kingdom. Statements issued about the meeting said there was no reason to trigger article 50 of the EU Treaty to launch exit negotiations before the end of the year. This means there is no end in sight to the phase of uncertainty that is of major economic and political concern to the rest of the EU – and in the final analysis, it is the British government that will decide when this phase will end. As breathtakingly simple as Theresa May's announcement about the UK forging a new role for itself in the world sounds, it must be taken literally. This will be the British government's most important goal in the coming months, overriding all other matters.

Anyone who is relying on the British, who are after all still part of the EU, remaining committed to the principle of good faith and trust when they enter into negotiations with the other 27 Member States on the terms of their exit from the EU and future relationships is bound to be disappointed. The British government will need to make the best out of a disastrous starting position. There will certainly be little scope for political hygiene. The EU-27 need to realise that the British government is concerned about its own country and its own people. The referendum revealed the deep political, social and geographical divide that exists within the country. If it does not manage to overcome this divide, the United Kingdom will not survive. This is the key conclusion Theresa May and her advisors have drawn from the referendum.

Anyone entering into negotiations with the British, will therefore need to brace themselves. The German government alongside with partners in the EU has understood this. The last thing political leaders want is to become dependent on a country that is now (understandably) focusing on its own fortunes. But unlike the British government, the Federal Government in Berlin is adamant that the future of Germany lies within the EU. This is how we can interpret the messages iterated by Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel during the extensive talks she held with her European partners during the summer. She made little or no reference to the divisive issue of "Brexit", clearly shifting her focus to the problems that need to be tackled jointly in Europe, namely prosperity and security for people in the EU. It is now a priority to ensure Brexit does not encourage other Member States to hold copycat referendums which could effectively spell the end of the European project, but to come up with a recipe to fight the centrifugal forces that threaten to drive Union members away from each other.

The word "crisis" has been part of the vocabulary when we talk about the European Union for many years yet what crisis (crises) are we actually talking about this time? "Brexit" really demonstrated what we have meanwhile witnessed in many countries and societies of the EU. People across Europe respond to the changes that globalisation has triggered with uncertainty, even fear. The aftermath of the global banking and sovereign debt crisis has been weighing heavily on citizens in many EU countries. Many citizens have not been able to take prosperity and security, which are at the very heart of Europe's promise, for granted. People are losing faith that the elites in their countries are pursuing policies that are aimed at the welfare of all citizens and think that there is basically a lack of control options in politics. The recent intensity of migration movements has intensified the uncertainty. Polarisation into "us" and "them", which was the theme of the 2015 NECE Conference held in Thessaloniki, has become rampant in many places. And in this context, the EU is being branded a big party of cosmopolitans who have lost the run of themselves, of "centralisers" taking away control from the nation states, and of market liberalisers who now need to wake up to a new reality.

It has come back to bite Britain in particular that there have been very few voices in recent decades that sought to generate basic acceptance of the EU among the British people as one of their political arenas. In continental Europe, politicians are now trying to ensure this permissive consensus on the European Union does not diminish any further. In order to do so, the governments of the EU Member States need to prove more so than ever before that they are capable of finding common solutions to problems that extend beyond their own national capacities. And these solutions must benefit everyone and not just a chosen few. For now, it looks like the strategy, as demonstrated by the Bratislava summit in September 2016, is to avoid divisive issues such as migration, and to focus on deliverables in other fields. But the deep cracks between and within EU countries and societies require a more proactive approach to conflict and consensus within the EU. Leaving out the difficult bits will ultimately not bring Europeans closer to each other again.

Almut Möller

Almut Möller

European Council of Foreign Relations

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