Brexit Undermines the Implicit Ideology of the EU
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Jacques Sapir

Director of studies at École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) in Paris, and head of the Centre d’Étude des Modes d’Industrialisation (CEMI-EHESS).

Valdai Discussion Club

The last vote of the UK Parliament, in which the proposed agreement with the EU and the prospect of a Brexit without any agreement were rejected, served as a snub to the European Union, which was unable to reach an agreement with Great Britain, as well as a blow to Theresa May, whose negotiating tactics provoked much criticism, writes Jacques Sapir, Director of studies at École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) in Paris.

Three possibilities are open and plausible today. The first is that the postponement of Brexit, which is now inevitable, will be extended indefinitely. This solution which is favoured by the European authorities, would end up with revision of the 2016 referendum results. Such a development may be plausible, but it is not very likely. On the one hand, the British political class has more respect for the vote of its ordinary citizens than the French political class. It is not ready to start rounding people up, as has happened in France. On the other hand, various polls indicate that if a new referendum takes place, as would be necessary if the postponement was extended indefinitely, the same answer would be given as in 2016. And this would put the British leaders in a more than uncomfortable situation…

The second plausible solution is an exit without any agreement. This would mean that bilateral relations would be immediately established between the EU countries and Britain. Given the extent of EU exports (from Germany, France, but also from Italy and Denmark), these countries cannot afford to lose the UK market. But this solution certainly would be chaotic, and accompanied, possibly, by financial crisis.

The third solution, which is the most likely, would be that the EU accepts new negotiations. If Germany and other countries are pushing in this direction, Brussels, and unfortunately France occupy a more intransigent position. Nevertheless, given the political and economic weight of Germany, this solution is now more likely to prevail, even if its probability is only slightly higher than a non-negotiated exit of Great Britain. 

For the EU, this situation is fraught with danger. Of course, some in Brussels, and not only in Brussels, would like to «punish» Britain for having the audacity to leave the EU. This is particularly the case of France, which maintains a position which is contrary to its interests. Given the extent of political and economic links between the two countries, Paris is wrong to adopt such an uncompromising attitude. Moreover, once Britain is out of the EU, France will find itself toe to toe with Germany, taking a back seat toward other countries like Italy or Poland. France would then logically have to rely on Britain to rebalance its position toward Germany.

On the other hand, some countries, especially Germany, realize a very large trade surplus with Great Britain. They are interested in ensuring that the divorce with the EU goes well. The President of the CDU, Mrs Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, recently wrote about it. Germany hopes that relations between the EU and Britain will improve.

The problem is that Britain’s exit from the EU deeply undermines the explicit and implicit ideology of the EU. The EU is supposed to bring so many benefits to the members countries that none of them would want to leave. It is a fable that collapses with Brexit. Hence the will of some EU leaders to adopt an uncompromising stance against Britain.

As for future relations with other countries, such as Russia, some believe that the EU, deprived of Britain, would be less sensitive to the US position. However, when one reads the speeches by the President of the CDU, it is clear that nothing has changed. On the contrary, Mrs Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer calls for a Europe with even closer integration in NATO.

In fact, Brexit will not change the position of the UK. But it will weaken it, and that could make some EU countries question Atlanticism as a strategic choice. In any case, the potential upcoming political crisis that the EU may suffer won’t transpire without consequences regarding relations with Russia and other countries.

Valdai Discussion Club