Why Brexit Is Europe’s Finest Hour

The British debacle is shoring up the EU center as it heads into critical May elections.

By Michael Hirsh, a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy.
A pro-European Union protester holds U.K. and European flags in front of Victoria Tower at the Palace of Westminster in central London on Sept. 13, 2017. (Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty Images)
A pro-European Union protester holds U.K. and European flags in front of Victoria Tower at the Palace of Westminster in central London on Sept. 13, 2017. (Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty Images)

It used to be that Feb. 21, 1947, was the date some historians marked as the end of Britain’s long run as a great power. That was the day London cabled Washington that it could no longer afford to shore up Greece against Soviet influence—and said it was withdrawing from communist-threatened Turkey as well. “The British are finished,” remarked Dean Acheson, who was soon to become U.S. President Harry Truman’s secretary of state. It was the moment the baton was passed: The United States would now fill Britain’s former imperial role as the dominant, stabilizing power in the West.

This week, the spectacle of U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May slinking off to Brussels to plead for more time to dig herself out of her impossibly deep Brexit hole may rank as an equally important moment in Britain’s relative decline. And just as the United States found itself the anointed geopolitical successor in that earlier era, the winner now is clearly the European Union. Not just the institution of the EU—but the idea of the EU. The message is all too plain: The EU can live very well without Britain, but Britain probably can’t get along without the EU. There is no viable Brexit plan, though many in the British Parliament are still pretending there is. Brussels, for so long an epithet, has become an epicenter of power. Game over.

It may seem jarring to speak well of the EU at this juncture. Since its inception in 1992, this neither fish-nor-fowl confederation has suffered chronically from existential self-doubt; it has been an object of fun across the Atlantic and a handy scapegoat among its 28 member states at home. And now, once again, the EU is dealing with right-wing populist forces that threaten to fracture it anew in parliamentary elections in May.

But the Brexit debacle has changed the stakes. May’s failure to negotiate an acceptable Brexit deal has not only shattered her government, it has also shored up the reputation of European Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier and other key Brussels bureaucrats, and they are the ones now calling the shots. On Tuesday, Barnier said the EU would not grant a delay to Britain’s scheduled March 29 withdrawal without a “concrete plan” from the U.K. government about how it would use that time, and he hinted that perhaps Britain should rethink its Brexit plans altogether and stay in.

Yet the British Parliament remains paralyzed in the face of EU resistance. Following a rare parliamentary maneuver by Speaker John Bercow, May may be unable to put her twice-failed Brexit deal to another vote without significant changes to it. But she knows she’s unlikely to win over Brussels to the concessions she needs to make those changes.  As a result, her credibility is all but gone, and Britons find themselves in what Solicitor General Robert Buckland described as a “constitutional crisis.”

“Both the Conservative Party and the Labour Party are really deeply broken,” said Harold James, a British historian at Princeton University.

Thus Britain’s humiliation has been a powerful lesson for even the most virulent populists and nationalists within the EU, rendering the idea of full exit all but unthinkable, a new political third rail.

Measured against the EU’s many stumbles, this must be counted as a major victory for Brussels. And it’s part of a notable pattern: Going back to the Greek financial crisis nearly a decade ago, the center in Brussels has continued to hold—against many expectations—and it’s the defiant politicians at the periphery who have been the ones to adjust their approach.

“The general pattern is that Europe continues to exercise a magnetic attraction which pulls even extremist parties toward the center,” said Charles Kupchan, a scholar of international relations and Europe specialist at Georgetown University. “Why? It’s markets. It’s a rule-based order. It’s the aggregation of political and geopolitical clout. It’s the sense of security. It’s open borders.”

And it’s economic viability. Kupchan and others point to the startling transformation of Syriza, Greece’s ruling party. Since Syriza’s first electoral victory in 2015, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has gone from firebrand leftist and anti-austerity populist to “the most U.S.-friendly and EU-oriented Greek prime minister since Costas Simitis in the 1990s,” as the journalist Yiannis Baboulias has written, and “the most adept enforcer of EU financial discipline the country has seen since the crisis broke out.” Other populists have also dropped their most extreme positions. During last year’s Italian national campaign, the right-wing Northern League party hinted at pulling out of the EU if Brussels refused to renegotiate fiscal and immigration rules. “That’s gone,” noted Kupchan. “In the showdown between Rome and Brussels over the budget it was the Italians that blinked, not the EU.”

Even as the European Parliament elections scheduled for late May are expected to be a battle royal between liberal pro-EU forces and Euroskeptics, few of the latter are talking about outright withdrawal any longer. France’s most prominent right-wing leader, Marine Le Pen, has gone from openly advocating EU withdrawal during her 2017 presidential run to looking for a way to reform the union from within. The far-right Italian minister Matteo Salvini has formed a Euroskeptic alliance with the leader of Poland’s ruling party, Jaroslaw Kaczynski—but it is  also one that  seeks to create a reformist bloc within the Brussels institutions, rather than outside them.

Charles Powell, the director of the Real Instituto Elcano, a Spanish think tank, argues that Britain’s bungled departure from the European Union—and the uncharacteristically unified and firm stance from Brussels during more than two years of negotiations with London—suggests an enduring image to come out of the struggle: While Britain is staggering into Brexit as a weakened, second-rate power, Europe is feeling stronger and more united than it has in years.

“With Britain out of the way, things are easier for the EU,” Powell said. Though Europe still suffers plenty of internal divisions, from maverick countries like Hungary and Poland to a north-south divide, “Brexit has brought us closer together, making it potentially easier to reach consensus” on divisive topics such as immigration, he said.

True, there are still many threats to the ever-fractious union. Germany’s political future is up in the air with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s imminent retirement as party leader, and Spain is also moving in a nationalist direction. If the next European Parliament ends up putting right-wing commissioners in charge of portfolios, the EU’s highly centralized structure could start to come undone, said Heather Conley of the Center for Strategic and International Studies: “Brexit has been a rare unifying moment, but in many ways it is masking all of these challenges.”

James warned that just because EU skeptics have learned “it’s really completely counterproductive to try to get out of the EU, the Italian government and the Eastern European populists now want to try to get a majority or at least a substantial blocking minority within the [European] Parliament. They’re not going to have a large enough group to get a majority, but it’s enough to be disruptive.”

“There will be a healthy quorum of Euroskeptic populists in the parliament,” Kupchan said. “This is not a problem that is going away anytime soon.”

Nor is it accurate to say that with the United Kingdom on the sidelines, dreams of greater European integration will suddenly be realized, Powell said. Even founding members of the EU, such as the Netherlands, hitched their wagon to Britain’s pro-market approach and skepticism toward greater centralization in Brussels; the Dutch have recently revived a so-called Hanseatic League of northern countries to act as a counterweight to the Franco-German axis that is again dominant in Europe.

Despite all that, Europe’s ability to hang together during years of contentious divorce proceedings, and to apparently emerge the stronger for it, also reflects a different understanding on either side of the English Channel of just what Europe is. “The fundamental notion that Europe is much more than a market—that is something that almost everyone in continental Europe agrees on, and almost no one in the U.K.,” Powell said.

At least since the 19th century, Great Britain’s policy toward Europe was to line up with the smaller powers against the biggest power, for example Napoleonic France. For centuries this approach was mostly successful. Now there’s only Brussels on the other side of the channel, staring London down. And Britain has blinked big time. How a policy that began as a quixotic effort to reassert national sovereignty could have ended with a near-total surrender of that sovereignty will be one for the history books.

Britain, said Kupchan, is like “a becalmed yacht that has lost its mast and rudder. They’re just afloat. They don’t know which way to turn.”

But the EU has very likely emerged with a clearer direction and destiny.

Keith Johnson contributed reporting.

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh