Brexit Has So Far United, Not Divided, the EU

1 june 2017

Mary Dejevsky - Chief editorial writer and a columnist at The Independent.

Resume: One of the arguments heard most often through the UK’s referendum campaign concerned the damaging effect that a “leave” victory could exert on the rest of the European Union. Not only would one of the largest and strongest EU countries depart, taking its influence with it, but a trend could be set that would be hard to stop.

The two sides in the campaign, of course, viewed that prospect very differently. For “Remain”, a UK vote to leave was a threat to a collective project that had not only benefited individual countries, but kept the peace in the continent of Europe as a whole. Who knew what would happen, Remainers warned, if the glue that held the EU together started to melt?

For the ‘Leave’campaign, the same prospect was not a threat, but a promise. If a knock-on effect of Brexit was a looser union, or ideally no union at all, this was to be welcomed. In setting a precedent for leaving, the UK would be doing their fellow Europeans a favour.

One year on, many of the predictions made during the campaign are still being fought over in the British political arena. While it is generally accepted that the City of London is unlikely to emerge unscathed, there is no consensus about whether Brexit will be good or bad for the UK economy as a whole. There is no agreement either about migration from the EU - whether reducing it is either possible or even desirable.

Foreign policy is another issue that divides, not least because those who supported Brexit did so for almost opposite reasons: some voted to leave the EU in the hope of recovering past greatness, while others did so in order to turn their back on the outside world, regarding the UK’s recent involvement in foreign wars as “over-reach” that had had disastrous consequences.

While these and many other arguments about Brexit rage on, however, the one prediction that both sides actually agreed on - that, for better or worse, a victory for Leave would weaken, and eventually perhaps destroy, the European Union - is heard no more. Indeed, it seems to recede further into the distance with every month that goes by. Quite simply, events are proving it wrong.

The first signals came from with opinion polling over the summer from Germany, which showed support for the EU in the other 27 countries mostly rising rather than falling. Far from providing an incentive to others, it appeared, the UK vote was acting as a deterrent. Voters in other EU countries, it appeared, had glimpsed a future break-up and preferred to keep the EU together, imperfect though it might be. 

A second set of signals has come from EU summits. Those held without the UK have generally concluded in record time with complete unanimity. Plans for an EU defence headquarters (separate from Nato) are a case in point. This idea - seen by some as a prelude to the creation of an EU army - had languished for years, largely because the UK opposed it. This time, London repeated its opposition and threatened a veto, but the rest of the EU pressed on, knowing that within two years or so, the UK would not have either a vote or a veto at all.

Then came a series of elections, which - to the surprise of the many European doom-watchers - only confirmed the trend detected in that early German poll. In December, the Austrians went to the ballot-boxes for the delayed run-off of their presidential election, and rejected the populist, euro-sceptic candidate in favour of a pro-European former Green.

Next up, in March, the Netherlands, where voters denied the Freedom Party’s anti-Islamic, anti-EU Geert Wilders, the breakthrough he had sought, opting essentially for the status quo. The lengthy process of negotiating a coalition continues - almost half a year on - but any claim Wilders might have had to a share in national power was ruled out as soon as the vote was in.

The French presidential election in April-May was always going to be the big one - but here again the European Union, seemingly against all the odds, prevailed. There may be many reasons why the 39 year-old centrist won, including Emmanuel Macron’s advantage of being a new face at a time of disillusion with the old order. But a key aspect of his programme - perhaps its distinguishing feature - was his impassioned defence of the European Union. When he walked to the podium to savour his victory, it was to the strains of ‘Ode to Joy’, the European anthem.

And Macron’s victory was all the more a victory for the preservation of the European Union because voters had a clear choice. Marine Le Pen’s National Front reached the run-off with a Eurosceptic programme that called for France to leave the euro and eventually the EU itself. But her defeat by a wider margin than expected, not only crushed her political ambitions, but led to her admission that her anti-EU stance was partly to blame.

It remains to be seen how Le Pen’s National Front performs in the coming National Assembly elections, but the presidential vote was unambiguous: And, with a fervent pro-European as President for at least the next five years, France will not be following the UK out of the Brussels door. Nor are the German elections going to change this. With all main German parties espousing a pro-EU agenda, only one conclusion is possible: the EU’s response to Brexit, collectively and individually, has been the very opposite of what both sides in the UK’s referendum foretold.

So what are the implications - for the EU and for the UK as it prepares to enter formal negotiations? First, the UK’s chances of playing one EU member off against another to maximise its advantage may be a lot less than some Brexit supporters may have hoped. Second, the EU, as a group and a collective project, is more robust than its detractors have thought; far from cracking under pressure, its will appears to have been strengthened. Third, the age of coming together rather than fragmenting is not over, even if the referendum vote in the UK and the US presidential election suggested otherwise. Fourth, and this remains a question: how far was the UK’s a disruptive force that prevented the EU realising its potential? Is the EU actually better off without us? (as Charles De Gaulle originally thought).

It cannot be presumed, of course, that the EU’s current harmony will endure. Even if France and Germany have new reason to resume their role as the engine of Europe, there are still economic, political and geographical realities that divide much of “old Europe” from much of “new Europe”. In time, one result could be a two-speed Europe, with the inner core sharing a common currency and increasingly much else, and the rest satisfied with membership of a single market.

For the time being, however, the immediate effect of the Brexit vote on the rest of the EU seems to be the opposite of the fragmentation that was forecast. And perhaps, without the UK cuckoo in its nest, the EU can actually become stronger and more cohesive, whether at one speed or two. From what he said during his recent European trip, President Trump seems to be revising his calculations about the EU’s post-Brexit capacity to thrive. President Putin’s lightning trip to Paris to meet Emmanuel Macron at Versailles, suggests that Russia may be doing the same. 

Valdai International Discussion Club

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