Brexit Will Be a Conscious Uncoupling, Not a Nasty Divorce

EU officials might be talking tough. But the voices that count want to play nice.

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 27:  In this photo provided by the German Government Press Office (BPA), German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron chat at the start of their meeting in Downing Street, on February 27, 2014 in London, England. During her one-day visit to the UK, Mrs Merkel will hold meetings with the leaders of the three main political parties as well as having tea with Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in Buckingham Palace.  (Photo by Guido Bergmann/Bundesregierung via Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 27: In this photo provided by the German Government Press Office (BPA), German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron chat at the start of their meeting in Downing Street, on February 27, 2014 in London, England. During her one-day visit to the UK, Mrs Merkel will hold meetings with the leaders of the three main political parties as well as having tea with Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in Buckingham Palace. (Photo by Guido Bergmann/Bundesregierung via Getty Images)

There has been no single official response by the European Union to the U.K.’s decision last week to vote in favor of leaving the bloc. Instead, we’ve seen a flurry of mixed and competing messages – a sort of good cop-bad cop routine, with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker pounding on the table and German Chancellor Angela Merkel asking Britain to take a few deep breaths and think.

Toughest of all have been leaders of the EU’s institutions. Negotiations for exit must start immediately, argued Juncker, alongside European Parliament President Martin Schulz – Europe can’t be held hostage to an equivocating Britain. Seeing a chance to make a power grab, high-profile European parliamentarians – such as former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt – have, too, demanded a speedy departure and pressed for a seat at the Brexit negotiating table alongside representatives from the 27 EU member states.

By contrast, the member states themselves, and their leaders in particular, have been much more guarded. Belgian and Italian officials argued for speeding up divorce proceedings at a meeting of national diplomats last weekend, but they were in a minority. Most agreed to proceed with caution. Merkel, in particular, has warned against any anti-British backlash.

Europe’s pragmatic national leaders are likely to prevail over the EU true believers in Brussels. All may have been irritated over the years at the U.K.’s prickly relationship with the EU, and its departure from the union will force all remaining member states to think long and hard about how they can renew their cooperation. But none of that’s a reason to expect an ugly divorce.

A popular view in Brussels, and in some national capitals, is that ever since the U.K. joined the Common Market in 1973 it has vetoed ambitious projects of continental integration, leaving the EU weaker and more divided. The U.K.’s exit is, for these Machiavellian federalists, a golden opportunity to take the EU in a different direction, to advance their project of “ever closer union,” involving deeper fiscal union and the launching of new pan-European institutions like a European army. But to take advantage of this chance, they believe, they must move quickly – hence the hostility to Britain’s dallying.

There is also the fear that the referendum result may not stick, and so negotiations on Brexit must start before the U.K. has a chance to change its mind. Options for backing out are already being floated by some from the “Remain” camp. And a cold-feet reversal wouldn’t be as radical as it appears. After all, the EU has ignored referendums in the past: The Irish were asked to vote again after rejecting the Lisbon Treaty in 2008 and the French and Dutch voted against the constitutional treaty in 2005, only to see it reappear virtually unchanged in the form of the Lisbon Treaty a few years later. Most recently, Greeks overwhelmingly rejected a bailout deal in 2015, but their prime minister signed off on a worse one shortly afterward.

But this attitude falls on deaf ears in many national capitals, and member states will have the final say on how to deal with the U.K. Among national leaders, the prevailing belief is that the block must proceed with caution when formulating its response to the U.K. referendum. This stems from the realization that the U.K.’s vote is not an isolated event, but connected with wider European politics. It has crystalized issues that a number of other governments have been grappling with for some time — most notably, growing skepticism about the usefulness of the EU and of “ever closer union.”

Experienced politicians, such as Merkel, view the political meltdown taking place in the U.K. with great concern. The fallout from the Brexit vote has revealed the fragility of the British government’s authority and how weak mainstream political parties in the U.K. have become. For Merkel, who has made the center-ground in German politics her own, or for embattled leaders like Matteo Renzi in Italy and François Hollande in France, events in Britain are a sobering reminder of their own domestic political struggles. Renzi recently lost mayoral elections in Rome and Turin to the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, and his political future looks more uncertain than ever. Hollande leads a Socialist Party that has lost much of its support among working-class French voters, just like the British Labour Party has. The French political establishment will take the success of the U.K. Independence Party in the EU referendum as a warning about the chances of Marine Le Pen’s National Front in next year’s presidential elections.

The events in the U.K. are just the tip of a much larger Euroskeptic iceberg. The key themes in the British “Leave” campaign – voter disenchantment with mainstream politicians, a sense on the part of many of having been left behind politically, economically, and socially – are rife across the rest of Europe. Indeed, in some ways these themes are even more pressing for the rest of the EU. A recent presidential election in Austria signaled the collapse of the country’s political mainstream, with the runoff held between a far-right and a Green Party candidate. In Greece, the political establishment imploded after the 2008 crash. The Panhellenic Socialist Movement and the center-right New Democracy found themselves marginalized, and a new set of political actors took power. A similar realignment is taking place in Spain, albeit in a slower and more protracted way. In the Czech Republic, the country’s finance minister, Andrej Babis, is the founder of Action for Dissatisfied Citizens, a protest movement that emerged as the second-largest bloc in the country’s Parliament after elections in 2013.

In some ways, other EU member states are in more of a bind than the U.K. Since the U.K. does not use the single currency, its vote to leave the EU is complicated but achievable. For eurozone countries, exit is almost unimaginable. Faced as they are with deep domestic discontent, governments in the eurozone share many of the U.K.’s problems but have fewer options available to deal with them. And the already fragile and stagnant eurozone is hardly in a fit state to withstand the economic shock of Brexit. Shares of Southern European banks, for instance, took a dramatic hit after the Brexit result was announced and many eyes are on Portugal and Italy.

For these reasons, the good cops are likely to win out: When negotiations around Brexit do begin, they are likely to be orderly and reasonable. There will be no excessive generosity, given that the remaining EU member states want to discourage their populations from arguing for a similar in/out referendum. But a hostile set of negotiations driven by a desire to punish the U.K. are also very unlikely. After all, voters in France, Germany, Italy, and elsewhere across Europe are angry with their own politicians, whom they consider remote and self-serving. They are far less preoccupied with punishing the U.K., a sentiment that belongs to disappointed Eurocrats more than it does to European citizens. What these citizens are concerned about is the dire economic performance of their economies, one which acrimonious negotiations with the U.K. would not help. Concerned about the impact of Brexit on the eurozone, European leaders are likely to favor as amicable a settlement as possible, where the economic interests of all concerned are accommodated.

In addition, while Machiavellians within the EU may see in Brexit a golden opportunity to take advantage of a crisis in order to push more European integration – and see shoving the U.K. out of the way quickly as a key first step — the fact remains that they are a minority whose views are out of sync with Europe’s populations. In an interview with the German press in the run-up to the U.K. referendum, the German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, made it clear that dramatic leaps forward in integration after Brexit were unlikely simply because it is not what Germans, or many across Europe, want. A recent Pew poll found that French, Greek, and Spanish voters were far more Euroskeptic than the British, while attitudes in Germany, the Netherlands, and Sweden were on par with the U.K. There is simply no appetite among European publics for the sort of leap toward more integration wished for by the continent’s few remaining federalists. Nor will Brexit do anything to alleviate some of the fundamental conflicts that have kept Europe divided. The French and German governments continue to disagree profoundly about the future of the eurozone, both in terms of what policies it should adopt and how it should be managed institutionally, for instance. These disagreements have nothing to do with the U.K. and will continue after the U.K.’s departure.

As befits a bloc made up of national governments whose politicians are acutely aware of the fragility of their own authority, the response to the U.K.’s decision to leave the EU has so far been muted. The nastier and more jubilant responses have come from those parts of the EU that are more isolated from the realities of national politics – from the European Commission and the European Parliament. The sense of opportunity felt by Euro-federalists does not extend much beyond the Brussels bubble, and it is certainly not shared by governments in national capitals. There, the feeling is more one of a generalized political crisis that needs to be managed carefully if it is not to engulf the EU as a whole. The EU’s future rests upon its national governments being able to contain growing voter dissatisfaction with mainstream political establishments. This is the greatest challenge for the EU, and one that means European leaders will continue to tread very carefully over the next few weeks.

Photo credit: Guido Bergmann/Bundesregierung via Getty Images


Chris Bickerton is a lecturer in politics at the University of Cambridge and author of The European Union: A Citizen’s Guide.
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