1. RUN, BREXIT, RUN
BSSB.BE cer.eu 27/02/2019
* “If you have the guts to be yourself, other people’ll pay your price.” ― John Updike, Rabbit, Run
In 2018 the British were obsessed with Brexit but the rest of the EU had much else to worry about. Although the migration crisis abated, EU governments could not agree on how to handle irregularimmigration. France’s President Emmanuel Macron struggled to convince fellow leaders that the eurozone needed radical reform in order to guarantee it a secure future without radical reforms to the way it was managed. Poland and Hungary were in conflict with EU institutions because of their disregard for the rule of law.
Russian misbehaviour continued to worry a number of member-states, while US President Donald Trump’s threat of a trade war caused most of them to fret. Perhaps most alarming of all, the Italians elected a right-wing populist government that seemed on a collision course with the EU on issues such as eurozone spending rules, migration and Russia.
And on top of all that, EU leaders faced the unwelcome distraction of Brexit. They all regret it (some more than others) and they all want the problem out of the way as soon as possible. They now realise that Britain’s departure is not quite the existential threat they once feared – no other member-state is anywhere near following the UK out.
- That realisation may have made parts of the EU too complacent about Brexit. One senior Commission official commented in 2018 that with the British pebble removed from the EU’s shoe, he and his colleagues could get back to the necessary task of integration. Yet those who see the UK as the principal obstacle to a more federal, united Europe are surely mistaken.
- The vote for Brexit was simply an extreme and particularly unfortunate example of a phenomenon that stretches across much of the continent. Right-wing, populist forces in many member-states – including those in Central Europe – are antagonistic to some or all of immigration, trade liberalisation, cross-border financial transfers, supranational rules and the institutions of Brussels.
The excision of the British pebble appears to have created modest difficulties for right-wing populists: since the referendum, support for the EU has grown in many parts of Europe, as voters have seen what a mess the UK is in. But many parts of European society remain fundamentally EU-sceptic. And despite the best efforts of Macron, who has found very little support among his fellow leaders, the EU is not making much effort to undertake serious reform.
Indeed, the first major lesson of Brexit is that European integration – in the old sense of grand new treaties that transfer powers to the Union – has stopped. From the Single European Act (ratified in 1987) to the Lisbon Treaty (ratified in 2009), five major treaties endowed the EU with substantial new powers. There will probably never be another such treaty.
- Any new document would have to be ratified by every member-state, with four or five of them certainly resorting to referendums. It is virtually certain that at least one of the referendums would have a negative outcome.
- EU leaders know this, which is why, if integration is required – for example to improve the way the eurozone works – they will resort to small, low-key inter-governmental treaties among the relevant member-states. The eurozone countries have already done this in recent years, with mini-treaties establishing two bail-out mechanisms, the European Stability Mechanism and the Single Resolution Fund.
The challenge of anti-EU populism to European integration will wax and wane from year to year, but will remain potent. The May 2019 European elections will remind leaders of populism’s strength. The European Commission is undoubtedly right that in order to tackle the root causes of right-wing populism, the EU needs new powers in areas like eurozone governance and managing migration; the EU’s poor performance on those issues has boosted support for the likes of France’s Marine Le Pen, Italy’s Matteo Salvini and Austria’s Heinz-Christian Strache. Yet the paradox of European integration is that anti-EU populists will often be strong enough to prevent the steps towards more integration that would undermine support for their own parties; voters and/or parliamentarians in many member-states would be likely to block the transfer of substantial new powers to the EU.
Therefore while the EU is a very long way from unravelling, it is likely to soldier on with insufficient means to tackle the many complex challenges it faces.
Leaving is like joining
At the time of writing, in January 2019, the final result of the Brexit process remains unclear. No particular outcome looks likely, but many seem possible: the deal Theresa May negotiated; that deal modified to produce a much softer Brexit; Britain leaving the EU without any deal; or a second referendum that could lead to the UK remaining a member.
However, two-and-a-half years after Britain’s referendum, some lessons of the Brexit process are becoming clear. One is that leaving the EU is like joining it. Countries wanting to join engage in ‘accession negotiations’, but that is a misnomer.
- The accession process in fact involves the EU imposing its terms on the country concerned. If it does not like those terms it does not have to join.
- The details can be debated but not the basic deal that the EU offers. Every country that has joined the EU has put up with this unequal ‘negotiation’ in order to get into the club.
- Leaving the EU is a similar process. Once the departing country has set its red lines for the future relationship, the EU decides what kind of deal will work. Then the exiting country has to accept those terms – if it wants a deal, and it will, since leaving without one would be hugely damaging to its economy. It is true that the Irish border has made Britain’s exit particularly complicated; the Withdrawal Agreement’s provisions for Northern Ireland to stay in much of the single market, and for the whole UK to stay in a basic customs union with the EU, would not be relevant to other countries exiting. But any member-state leaving would have to accept the EU’s strictures on process (the Withdrawal Agreement must come before discussions on future relations) and substance (the departing country must promise to pay the money the EU claims it is owed).
- The publication is not an editorial. It reflects solely the point of view and argumentation of the author. The publication is presented in the presentation. Start in the previous issue. The original is available at: cer.eu