Brexit: Between A Rock and A Hard Place
According to the latest results, the Leave campaign won narrowly in the Brexit Referendum. A narrow win it may be so, yet it is one of the biggest victories for Eurosceptics since the French and Dutch no votes to the European constitution in 2005. It is yet to be seen whether the British referendum would cause more damage to European integration than the French and Dutch no votes which shelved a federal European Union in the political agendas of European politicians.
Since its entrance to the Union, the British position in the EU has been perceived by many as ambivalent. It took some time and many concessions granted to the British to establish a working political and economic regime between the EU and Britain. Despite its opt-outs the UK remained sceptical of the European integration and displayed a cynical view of the reform efforts within the EU since Margaret Thatcher’s premiership. The recent reforms implemented by the Treaty of Lisbon (aka Reform Treaty) apparently failed to generate public support not only across Britain but also across the Continent since its entry into force in 2009. It is also crystal clear that although David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, succeeded to gain new opt-outs for the UK last February, the anti-EU camp has increased its popular support across Britain since then. According to the UK-EU deal, the UK was not held obliged to commit itself to further political integration. Moreover, Cameron’s two other demands: i) the exercise of a veto power by national parliaments against the European Commission and ii) the “emergency brake” clause on social and migrant policy were also accepted by the EU.
The EU, more or less, conceded to the demands of Cameron since European politicians found themselves in a political dilemma that might jeopardize the EU project. On the one hand, having been frightened by the unexpected consequences of the UK’s leave, European politicians were forced to strike a deal with the UK. It was feared that a no vote to Europe could spread rapidly to other member states. On the other hand, European politicians were remained reluctant to give further concessions to the UK as other member states could ask for similar ones. Both were unpleasant alternatives, yet the EU politicians had to evade from the most unpleasant one, i.e. the British leave. At the end of the day, the EU opted for keeping the UK within the Union by giving further concessions. However, the results of the British referendum demonstrated that British people were not satisfied by the deal.
What has to be discussed now is the broader implications of the UK’s vote to leave the EU for British and European politics. It is feared that the UK’s vote to leave the EU will lead to new referendums in other member states, namely in France and the Netherlands. As the Pandora ’s Box of referendums on the future of the EU across the Continent has now opened, political clout of far right and anti-EU parties might surge in many European countries. The rise of far-right and anti-EU parties would create new partnerships in European politics. Perhaps, more importantly, it would widen the gap between Europeans and outsiders. Nobody in the EU is sure whether the EU without Britain would be more unified and problem-free environment. The EU’s future has been on the rocks for some time not because of the British ambiguous approach towards the EU project but rather because of the lack of internal (a need for economic reconstruction after the World War two) and external (the Soviet threat towards Western Europe) stimuli that had played vital roles in the foundation of the EU in the 1950s.
It will not take too long for Britain to normalize its relations with the major actors in Europe. Surely, big members of the EU, i.e. Germany and France, would take slow steps towards the development of bilateral relations with Britain as they fear a domino effect that could bring the demise of a more than 60 years old European integration. The nature of UK’s subsequent relations with the EU would influence its relations with France and Germany as well. Nevertheless, slow recovery of bilateral relations between the three countries would probably result in the establishment of a tripartite political and economic regime between Britain, France and Germany in the long run.
The Brexit referendum, once and perhaps for all, proved that the UK did never consider itself as part of a European project that would create a political union among European countries. The pro-EU camp has to contemplate on the reasons of their failure to reach out ordinary Europeans as much as they decide on the appropriate ways of dealing with the UK’s leave. On the other hand, it is British responsibility towards the British and European citizens to smoothen the two-year process of transition from an EU member to a non-EU member country. On top of that, the next generation of British politicians will have to find a new scapegoat to put the blame on for their unsuccessful economic and social policy as they struggle to cope with the effects of a sea change in global economic and political structures in the near future.