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Brexit could have been one of those events that triggered the oft-predicted demise of the European project. It may yet well prove to be just that, though it is too early to tell for certain.
One range of possible outcomes covers all the ways in which the EU will meet its end. The other is replete with less sensational series of events, with European leaders “muddling through” the challenges coming their way, just as they did with the euro crisis and are now doing with migration from third countries.
The former is unknown. We have no idea what the disintegration of the Union may actually look like. The latter is known. It is far from the desirable when it comes to the content of policy. It does however work “well enough” for the EU to keep pushing forward. And if such global phenomena as the ones that beset Europe now and in the near past have not forced the Union’s policy-makers into submission, why should Brexit be any different?
A setback, not a catastrophe
The UK’s role in key areas of policy was/is marginal. The main pillar of European politics over the last 20 years or so has been the Economic and Monetary Union. The UK has a formal opt-out from the euro and, by extension, has enjoyed special exemptions from economic governance and the nascent banking union.
The future of European integration will continue to be focused on completing the EMU’s institutional architecture. Governance needs to be improved with respect to its legitimacy, accountability, and functionality. A supranational fiscal capacity will have to be introduced in one way or another, even if that entails more power for the EU to enforce the fiscal/macroeconomic rules. The banking union still has ways to go, especially as concerns the establishment of a common deposit insurance scheme.
Specifics aside, the UK was not part of this agenda, and would have stayed that way even on the occasion of a win for the ‘remain’ camp.
The other totemic issue of the EU, free movement of persons, also finds the UK on the sidelines. It is not a party to the Schengen Agreement and, hence, its territory is not part of the passport-free Schengen Area. The impression of moving from, say, Brussels to Paris is just about switching cities. Whereas Brussels to London is about switching countries, given the border controls and all.
There are other items that conform with the above-outlined model, such as criminal law and police cooperation. They go to reinforce the point that the UK was not an integral part of the European integration process anyhow, simply because it opted not to.
Politics is not just technicalities
This does not mean that Brexit can be blithely dismissed as irrelevant. It does ramify to all areas of policy for at least a couple of reasons:
- Perception. While we can enumerate all the technicalities about formal opt-outs from the EU acquis and whatnot, the general impression is that of parting ways with a major global player (and the UK is one given, inter alia, its economy, diplomatic reach, military might, and veto right at the UN Security Council). The symbolic meaning cannot be ignored. The British people prefer independence over EU membership. Electorates across the continent now have a reference of reverse integration, of seeking alternatives outside the Union. It is up to the public debate, taking place both at the national and supranational levels, to decide whether to persist or give up on a common European polity.
- Direction. There is an open discussion about the direction of the integration process. “Ever closer union”, even if only a vague commitment, is open to scrutiny. Once the time comes for amending the Treaties, other European nations may find it expedient, indeed desirable, to roll back some of the elements of European policy. It is up to the pro-integration governments to persuade voters and their peers on (a) the viability of their vision for Europe, and (b) the mutual benefits of a more integrated EU.
Even though the UK may not have been at the forefront of European affairs, its forthcoming exit from the Union still poses major problems to the powers that be.
Signs of marginal change
Here is a modest prediction, based on the study of the European integration process:1 the EU will survive the hit. The primary reason is that its formal divorce with the UK will be conducted in an orderly fashion, following an extended period of negotiations. The actual exit will take place over the medium term, while the terms of the deal may result in a state of affairs not too different from the pre-Brexit one (with the UK’s opt-outs from all sorts of European policies).
That prospect notwithstanding, the face of European politics is already shifting. The ‘EU27’ is considered the new normal (28 states minus the UK). A consultation phase involving the remaining governments is underway. It will culminate in an “unofficial” meeting of the European Council. As per its website:2
On 16 September, the heads of state or government of the 27 will meet in Bratislava. They will continue a political reflection to give an impulse to further reforms and to the development of the EU with 27 member states.
While we may not known what European leaders intend to do, there are two aspects of supranational politics that are likely to remain constant:
- Gradualism. The priority is to preserve the status quo. Anything else would prove too risky given the prevailing conditions. The Union will focus on making sure that Brexit is the exception and that ‘business as usual’ will resume. In practice, this means sticking to the plan of pushing incremental reforms to the institutional order of the Economic and Monetary Union, as well as pursuing permanent or ad hoc solutions to current issues such as migration and public safety. Perhaps a renewed impetus to the integration process will be given towards the end of this decade/beginning of the next, assuming things do not turn for the worse. Even so, that would still be in line with current efforts to deepen the EMU and to model other areas of policy in its image.
- Intergovernmentalism. A few days ago, the leaders of Germany, France, and Italy held a meeting in Ventotene. While the symbolism may be that of formulating an outright federalist vision for Europe, one cannot ignore the fact that the event itself was intergovernmental. Consistent with gradualism, the locus of European politics will continue to be the nation states in their various formations, most notably the European Council. The modalities of Brexit, its implications, and aftermath will be handled by national governments through diplomacy. EU institutions, in particular the European Parliament, will perform ancillary functions in that regard (as it did on, say, the EU-Turkey migration deal).
Flexibility as the last option
To the above, we may also include the capacity of the European political elite to cope with unforeseen events. Much is written about the rigidity of the EU legal order. Treaty amendments are needed for progress to be achieved. The argument is that without such changes the Union has no legal means of coping with the challenge at hand.
While resting on a kernel of truth, this line of reasoning fails to fully account for recent evidence, especially as presented to us amid the euro crisis. European leaders have proven to be creative enough to circumvent the ostensible obstacles of the Union’s primary law (remember the “no-bailout clause”, the dubious legal basis of the ‘troika’, and so on?).
New treaties outside the Community acquis can be considered, as was the case with the fiscal compact and the European Stability Mechanism. International covenants between the European states are technically outside the scope of EU law, though they obviously have to remain consistent with it.
Besides, there exists a Treaty provision, referred to as the “flexibility clause”, which provides a degree of adaptiveness that often passes unnoticed.3
The point is that the EU will be as flexible as it needs to be, provided the necessary willingness to improvise. The issue is above all political, not legal-technical.
Expectations should be tempered
Losing the UK amounts to parting ways with the most reluctant of Member States. Still, the onus is on the EU to prove its merit. It need to show that it has the answers on all the issues that are dear to citizens, from employment and welfare, to public order and security.
Yet deliverable policy outcomes may no longer be sufficient to confirm its utility to the general public. The EU is overreaching. It wants to be the protagonist on a range of policies that are traditionally understood as national prerogatives, from fiscal and economic policy, to foreign affairs and border management. But its eagerness to assume those competences is not matched by a drive to further democratise, decentralise, and transparentise itself in the process.
The last few decades of European politics have shown that citizens can tolerate the elitist top-down modus operandi of EU affairs, provided they reap the benefits. With those greatly diminishing and with widespread scepticism over the Union’s overall design and aspirations, a paradigm shift may be the only way to salvage the European project. Some new initiative to deviate from the norm, to truly bring the EU closer to its citizens, mainly through public spending, programmes for social and territorial cohesion, and more inclusive governance.
Expectations had better be tempered though, as there is no sign of willingness to introduce major reforms. Institutional inertia, the inherent conservatism of the establishment to preserve its status and particularities, may well prove to be the constant for the future, much to the disappointment of many a citizen.
Brexit cannot act as a catalyst in that regard, whatever its final form may be. It will not turn minds towards federalism and similar contemplations about a new type of European polity. Instead it only seems to trigger the reflexive attitude to keep the system as is. From the EU28 to the EU27. Just a recount of those still on board.