Democracy has spoken: the United Kingdom (UK) is out of the European Union (EU). In a way this is not necessarily bad news: the Brits decided to say no to a system that they feel has failed them, and their decision should be enforced. Now, I am not saying that you will be better off without the EU, because I really do not think you will, but at least you will have tried (although probably not in the best possible way), so let’s cheer to that. That said, this is a sad day for the EU obviously. I am disappointed and angry, especially because that means that you have decided to turn your back on the values that the EU stands for – unity, solidarity and peace – out of particular interests, but we can only respect your decision. We can only work with what we are given, and what we are given is a Brexit.
However, let’s be clear: the UK is not the Beyoncé of the EU, and its solo career is quite uncertain. But if there is one country that can make it outside of the EU, it may well be the UK. The price to pay might be higher for the UK than for the EU on the long term, simply because it stabbed us in the back and the EU won’t forget that. Also, because it is a small country that is alone and that has always had big ambitions, while at the same time other countries in the world are huge or forge strong alliances that come in the form of regional integration systems, such as the EU. That may sound a lot like the 18th and 19th centuries, and Great Britain did not do so badly at the time (well except the constant wars of course), but there is a huge difference nowadays: we live in a globalized world, and the UK is neither big nor part of a strong alliance anymore. And guess what: it won’t, since all of its neighbors are already in an alliance (the EU), unless that alliance collapses. And here is the problem: I refuse to believe that the EU will collapse.
I give you that it is hard to be positive when only a few days have passed. I am not British, so I won’t be affected as a Brit but as a European. And here is how I decide to see things: some sort of balance within the EU has been broken, no doubt about it. The only way the EU will survive is if it resumes to being the EU that it used to be a few decades ago, when things were rolling. Sure, it will be a difficult path, but we are facing a simple choice: it is changing or crashing, so I hope that the Brexit will serve as a wake up call. A lesson, as hard and sad as it is, must be learnt. The EU has lost a battle, but it still has a war to fight. We, the citizens, have the responsibility to fight for what we want. And what I want is a harder, better, faster, stronger EU. Isn’t that what we all should want after all?
There are huge negative effects to this separation, but if we can turn them into benefits, I believe everything will be just fine. This article will hence be about that: what will a Brexit change? How can we turn this defeat into a victory? What can we do?
First, let’s take a look at the main reasons why the UK decided to exit. There are a few of them, among them: immigration, the fact that it was losing more and more power to the EU, the impossibility to negotiate preferential agreements with some Third countries, and its contribution to the EU budget.
As far as numbers are concerned, immigrants account for a tiny part of the UK society, so what was this fear even about in the first place? First, we need to tell legal immigration and illegal immigration apart. When we talk about legal immigration, we mean mostly EU immigration, and the fact that EU-citizens can go to the UK to work and get social benefits. Well, the UK was not ok with this. And it was not ok with welcoming political refugees either. And it was not ok with illegal immigration (=people fleeing war and death and did not have the “chance” to have a political refugee status), because immigrants are bad, bad people, and they are responsible for all your domestic problems. Well, guess what? There is no such thing as a massive immigration flow to the UK (legal and undocumented) and anyways it won’t change much since shutting down immigration (especially illegal immigration) is impossible. Exiting won’t change that. What it will change, however, is that if the UK makes labor and legal immigration harder, then the EU will make incoming immigration from the UK equally hard, may it be for business or travel purposes. This can’t be a win-win situation, this will only be a lose-lose situation. But domestic political battles (errr David Cameron) have their reasons that the reason ignores.
Another reason for a Brexit is the impossibility for the EU Member States to negotiate separate bilateral commercial agreements with Third countries. The EU was not in favor of negotiating with China and India, but the UK was. The same happened with the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the USA: the UK was ready to accept anything while the rest of the EU was quite reluctant. I am tempted to say that the Brexit is a good thing in that respect, because both the EU and the UK will be able to do as they please: the UK will be able to negotiate with the USA, China and India – but still these three countries won’t be quite satisfied, because one country compared to 28 countries does not quite represent the same market – while the EU won’t have any pressure to do so. Generally speaking, when it comes to negotiating commercial agreements, it can definitely be an advantage to be a country. Let’s take the example of Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) (for more information, see article “the Brexit and the relations with Latin America and the Caribbean” from March, 12th 2016): one of the main reasons why trade between the EU and these countries has never really taken off is that LAC countries have always been reluctant to negotiating with the EU as a block (or rather they can’t agree with each other), so that it creates an imbalance that the EU, a group of countries by nature, cannot correct, so the LAC region is the one that necessarily needs to adapt. The UK will have a bigger chance at a fruitful commercial relation with this sub-continent, because it is something that the EU is not: a country. Obviously, it will need to swallow its pride, because as a country it will not be more powerful than bigger countries such as Brazil or Mexico, and also the UK trade balance is negative with some other countries, especially Colombia and Argentina, so it won’t exactly be in the position of demanding.
As far as the budget is concerned, the solidarity principle applies within the EU, meaning that richer countries necessarily pay more and proportionally get less return on investment than poorer countries (although the UK fully benefited from the Single Market and dit get a lot more return on investment than most countries). This rule has always been pretty clear, and yet the UK had already obtained a cut in its financial contribution to the budget. Obviously, that was not enough, and we can regret once again that the UK decided not to play by the rules when it reckoned that these rules did not exclusively favor its own interests. From the moment you decide to be part of a supranational organization, you should at least think a tiny bit of the greater good, so I do not reckon that the UK should have benefited from so many favors in the first place, or that quitting out of particular interests was fair.
Finally, as a supranational organization, the EU by nature takes on more power to the detriment of the countries. Of course, the UK had always seen the EU as a mere market to play in, it has never hidden the fact that is was against a closer union, but with the years passing, it was getting obvious that the economy would not be the only EU field of competency. Yes, the UK decided not to take part in the Schengen Area and the Eurozone, and blocked as many decisions as possible that implied more delegations of powers to Brussels, but what did it think? That this would just stop? Many countries and EU-citizens were getting quite fed up with the reasoning and selfishness of the UK, so the question is: why didn’t you exit earlier, when you saw that there was no turning back? In the middle of an economic, institutional and security crisis, exiting is a really bad timing, and blaming the EU for all your domestic problems seems a bit simplistic. In case you Brits wonder why the EU citizens and leaders are disappointed and angry, the answer is easy: you begged us to be a part of the EU, yet you were never a part of its spirit, and eventually you let us down at the worst possible time in the history of the EU. I believe it will take some time for the EU to trust you again, so do not expect our leaders to make your life easy, because you most certainly did not make ours easier.
That said, the Brexit, most and foremost, is a hard blow for the EU’s equilibrium and for the most liberal countries. At the Council of the EU (which represents the interests of the Member States at governmental level and takes the major decisions, for more information see note “The EU-institutions: the Council of the European Union” from May, 30th 2016), a decision can be blocked by a minimum of four Member States representing 35% of the population of the EU. As a consequence, it was quite common to see an economic measure blocked by the “liberal bloc” (25% of the total EU-population), which was, among others, integrated by the Netherlands, the Czech Republic and the UK, and Germany sometimes joined forces to achieve the necessary minimum of 35%. With the UK (one of the three biggest EU-countries) out, this bloc will represent only 15% of the total population, and even with Germany that would not be enough to achieve the 35% of the population needed to block an economic measure. That means that these countries will have to seek the support of conservative countries, which won’t be such an easy task. In that respect, the Brexit means a breach in the economic and political balance between the member States that somehow will need to be restored for an opposition to even exist.
Also, the three biggest countries (France, Germany and the UK) used to lead the EU. Germany and the UK, although with some substantial differences, had more or less the same position towards the EU, and France was often forced to tag along and adapt to them. With the UK out of the picture, that leaves Germany vs. France without any other country to weigh in, meaning that these two will either have to coincide (good luck on that), or give more power to another EU country – most likely Italy if it came to that. The basic question will be this one: does Italy have big enough shoulders to fill the empty seat, or could Germany and France get along well enough to lead the EU together? For now, it seems likely that Italy could join the club, because Merkel and Hollande have very different opinions about the EU integration. However, Italy is closer to France than it is to Germany, so Paris would gain a lot of weight. Knowing that, would Merkel allow Italy to be “promoted”? And finally, Germany has been the backbone of the EU for the last decade or so. In case France and Italy took the decisions and Germany was left aloof, what would happen to the EU and its survival? This point is extremely important and needs to be taken care of cautiously: the EU was originally created to protect and guarantee peace. This is why Germany, France, Italy and the Benelux gathered together in the first place, and this is why countries such as Portugal, Greece and the former communist bloc were integrated, making it almost impossible to take decisions with 28 Members. Peace has always been chosen over consolidating the EU so far (although not always for good reasons), and I believe it was eventually the right choice. Nowadays, the balance between the decisions-takers must at all costs be preserved. All Member States will need to make sacrifices.
We have to work with what we are given, and what we are now given will soon be an EU with 27 Member States. I believe that this still is too much to function efficiently and to make progress, so a “multi-speed” approach might be needed. This is already the case of the Eurozone and the Schengen Area, so I believe this would be the wisest path to follow from now on. France, who is in favor of an ever-closer EU, and Germany, more reluctant to this idea, would not need to agree on everything, and none of them would feel frustrated. Sure, that would make the EU as such even more complicated than it now is, but each country would communicate on what it is a part of, so eventually that would not make each country’s role within the EU more complicated. Until then, France and Germany would need to agree that a “multi-speed” EU could be the only way around preventing the dissolution of the EU. In that respect, I hope the exit of Great Britain, which was a supporter of this idea, will serve us right, and that the Member States won’t take it as a sign that the biggest obstacle to the EU-integration has been overcome, because there are many others, like corruption ans standstill.