The EU After Brexit

As I am writing this text, there are barely a hundred days left to Brexit. The mist surrounding the prospects for Britain’s future relations with the European Union is as dense, however, as that over the Thames on an average fall or winter day. Although we still do not know under what conditions, when and perhaps even whether Britain will leave the EU, the question of the impact of all the turmoil on the EU is becoming increasingly important.

We will be arguing about what lesson the EU should learn from Brexit in the elections to the European Parliament. And the “post-Brexit” EU will be a slightly different entity than before, when the rebellious, capricious, but still so important British people were still among us. Brexit is mentioned alongside the euro crisis, the migration crisis and the crisis of populism as one of the most important crises that have impacted the Euro-pean Union in recent years. When it finally happens, are we really going to wake up among debris and ashes?

The impact of Brexit will be much smaller

The drama staged in the Brexit theater, with almost daily declamations of new lines, heartrending divorce scenes and an impenetrable plot written by a crazy scriptwriter, contributes to the misunderstandings connected with this crisis narrative. Yes, Brexit is an idea as senseless as it is harmful to the countries of the European Union. And the energy spent on it at EU summits, in press releases and public discussions could be used much better.

It is absurd, however, to place it in the same basket with problems which will undoubtedly determine the future of the European project. Not much is known at present about the conditions of Brexit, but one thing is certain: its impact on the fate of the EU will be much smaller than the current turmoil suggests.

The idea that Brexit is the fault of the EU and that the EU has to change, in order to avoid a repetition of this scenario in other countries, is a myth disseminated by those who prey on cheap criticism of the EU. The problems of EU countries in overcoming problems related to the euro and refugees have, of course, provided additional fuel for those who are in favor of leaving the EU.

The main argument, however, for Brexit was the lies about the bright future facing a global Britain and the desire to reduce labor immigration at all costs. If the EU were to actually learn a lesson from Brexit, in accordance with what has been suggested by its critics placing responsibility on it, it should abolish the principle of free movement of labor.

Not much is known at present about the conditions of Brexit, but one thing is certain: its impact on the fate of the EU will be much smaller than the current turmoil suggests.

This is probably, however, not what they are aiming at. The EU has many deficits and problems, but the reasons for Brexit are very loosely linked to them (if at all). In other words, the British are leaving the EU not because of what it is like, but for completely different reasons. If there is any lesson to be learned from this experience for the countries and institutions of the EU, it is a warning against madness which ends badly. It seems that the first effects are already there. According to the Eurobarometer, EU citizens trust the EU more and more and European populists are having to change their strategy. Instead of dreaming of leaving the EU, they are planning to change it from the inside (which may be worse, but that is another issue).

A significant shift in the political balance of power

This is not to underestimate the importance of Britain’s exit from the EU. Although the British represent only 12.9% of the EU population, their share of the GDP of the block as a whole is 16.1%. Some countries (Ireland, the Netherlands, Germany) and sectors will be more affected by the British exit from the common market than others.

According to the Financial Times, the EU without London will have higher unemployment and lower productivity and will be overtaken by the United States in the ranking of the largest economies. Correspondingly significant are British contributions to the budget, with the EU sorely missing the approximate EUR 11 billion a year. Brexit will also lead to a significant shift in the political balance of power in the EU, the final shape of which we do not yet know, as it will depend on the strategies adopted by the Member States.

While most observers focus on the growing role of Germany, the most important will be the dynamics of the relations between medium-sized and smaller countries. Certain states have already spotted their chance. “The European Union without Britain will be a more open field for the Netherlands.

This requires a flexible and proactive approach, open to cooperation with all countries. A network of changing partnerships will also help to prevent a widening of divisions in Europe – North versus South, East versus West,” write leading experts of the Clingendeael think-tank advising the Dutch gov- ernment.

The activity of Prime Minister Marek Rutte as the informal leader of the new Hanseatic League, a group of Northern European countries which speak in one voice on euro issues and with demands that are at cross-purposes with French or Franco-German ideas, is a good example of how the Brexit perspective influences political calculations.

While most observers focus on the growing role of Germany, the most important will be the dynamics of the relations among medium-sized and smaller countries.

As shown by Caroline de Gruyter in an analysis written for Carnegie Europe, the UK’s exit will encourage member states to build new coalitions, which will translate into decisions concerning the future direction of integration. In some areas, such as defense policy or the euro, there may be even more at stake. But whether this happens or not will depend much more on the will of the rest of the EU 27 than on whether or not the British people will continue to sit at the table.

The threat of a Union changed from the inside

Brexit will therefore require adaptation, both economic and political, from all the actors involved, and this will be easier for some and harder for others. As such, however, it will not bring about a catastrophe, nor will it become an example to follow. It is apparent at present that the threats related to Brexit, which were discussed two years ago in the pre- and especially post-referen- dum shock, are not Europe’s greatest concerns. The threat of disintegration, due to another exit, is not what should keep us awake, but the vision of a Un- ion changed from the inside by its overt and covert enemies. “Poland in the heart of Europe” is the new slogan of the Polish ruling party Law and Justice (PiS), which sounds like both a mockery and a warning.

The threat of disintegration, due to another exit, is not what should keep us awake, but the vision of a Union changed from the inside by its overt and covert enemies.

What Europe will be like and where its heart will lie is the real issue in this year’s dispute over Europe. The absence of the British people will be unpleasant, but it will only have a very limited impact on whether and how we will be able to answer these questions. In other words, a possible future crisis in the EU will be the result of our own ineptitude and not the fault of the British people’s decision. And they will have to swallow their own bitter pill.

Piotr Buras

is the Head of the Warsaw office of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). He studied international relations at the University of Warsaw and is an expert on European and German politics. Before joining ECFR he worked as author and correspondent of the Polish daily “Gazeta Wyborcza” in Berlin (2008-2013). 2018-2019 Piotr is a non-resident fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences working on the protection of rule of law in the EU.

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