On March 25, 2017, European leaders will mark the sixtieth anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome, the EU’s founding document. It will be a fraught celebration.
The United Kingdom will exit the European Union after 43 years, as a majority of British voters chose «leave» over «remain» in the country’s EU referendum on June 23. Prime Minister David Cameron said, he would leave office by October.
The result plunged Britain into an uncertain future, with both serious and immediate political and economic ramifications.
Actually, the UK has always been ambivalent about its relations with the rest of post-war Europe. It has never really adhered to the ideological goal of a «closer union» between states since its EU accession in 1973. Its membership in the European Union was initially controversial and prompted a referendum in 1975, which the «remain» side won with 67 percent of the vote.
London opted out of key EU initiatives such as the move to establish a common currency and the Schengen Agreement allowing border-free travel.
Prior to announcing the referendum date, Cameron also negotiated a deal with the EU to give Britain more autonomy within the organization if it voted to remain. The terms of the agreement give Britain greater control over a range of issues, including social welfare benefits, immigration and political integration with the EU.
As one can see, the UK has always had a special status inside the Union. Many EU members viewed Britain as a black sheep in the family.
The road ahead is unclear. No state has left the European Union before, and the rules for exit – contained in Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon – are brief. Triggering Article 50, formally notifying the intension to withdraw, provides two years to haggle over the terms of a divorce from the bloc – something that has never happened. After that, the Treaties that govern membership no longer apply to Britain. The terms of exit will be negotiated between Britain’s 27 counterparts, and each will have a right of veto over the conditions. It will also be subject to ratification in national parliaments, meaning, for example, that Polish MPs could stymie the entire process. Agreeing a new trading relationship, establishing what tariffs and other barriers to entry are permitted, and agreeing on obligations such as free movement will take at least five years. The UK will have to simultaneously negotiate a new deal with the EU, reach a series of major bilateral trade deals around the world, and revise its own governance as EU law recedes.
Despite the uncertainty, some ramifications are clear.
Economists are generally wary of transitions, fearing that heightened uncertainty over Britain’s relationships with other countries will damage confidence and investment, at least for a few years after the exit.
Trade agreements between the EU and 52 other countries, which currently cover the UK, would have to be negotiated individually. This is a tall order.
One consequence of Brexit could be the break-up of the UK. A majority of Scots backed «remain» but were outvoted by England. Now a new Scotland’s referendum on independence is likely.
Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s First Minister, would negotiate directly with Brussels about keeping Scotland in the EU club.
Voices are also raised in Northern Ireland calling for leaving the UK in favor of Ireland.
The UK referendum is likely to trigger a domino effect. The Netherlands may vote on the EU membership soon.
Denmark may hold a copy-cat plebiscite soon.
Italy’s anti-establishment 5-Star movement has now officially called for a referendum on whether to keep the Euro. The results of Brexit were hailed by supporters of 5-Star as a possible springboard to Italian independence.
In France, National Front party leader Marine Le Pen promised voters their own referendum as she declared her support for Brexit.
It’s important to note that the British are not the only ones with doubts about the European Union. The EU is again experiencing a sharp dip in public support in a number of its largest member states.
Only 51% across 10 EU countries surveyed have a favorable view of the European Union.
A median of 42% in these 10 nations want more power returned to their national capitals, while only 19% favor giving Brussels more power and 27% favor the status quo.
Just 27% of the Greeks, 38% of the French and 47% of the Spanish have a favorable opinion of the EU. Notably, 44% of the British view the EU favorably, including 53% of the Scottish.
EU favorability is down in five of the six nations surveyed in both 2015 and 2016. There has been a double-digit drop in France (down 17 percentage points) and Spain (16 points), and single-digit declines in Germany (8 points), the United Kingdom (7 points) and Italy (6 points).
The result of Brexit will tip the balance of forces inside the EU. It’s hard to predict if Germany will remain as the European locomotive opposed by Poland and other members of the Visegrad group on many issues.
Besides, Rome, Paris and Warsaw fear that without Britain as a countervailing force in the bloc, Germany would become too powerful. The Germans themselves fear that an anti-German alliance would form.
Brexit greatly damages the European common foreign and security policy. Post-Brexit, Britain would find it harder to keep close foreign-policy and security links with the EU, not least because it would no longer be a part of the entity. The EU has become a key piece of the West’s defence and security architecture. Brexit would weaken the EU – and so the West.
Intelligence cooperation is questioned. Theresa May, the home secretary, pointing to the European Arrest Warrant and access to intelligence databases, insisted that being in the EU made Britain «more secure from crime and terrorism». Pauline Neville-Jones, a former national security adviser, said, Brexit would weaken border control and police co-operation.
The much talked about concept of European Army is in jeopardy now. Brexit also raises the risk of the EU wastefully opening its own military headquarters, a move long resisted by Britain.
With one of the biggest diplomatic and military players out and Euroscepticism on the rise, the EU will find it extremely difficult to speak with one voice on major international problems, including the relationship with Moscow. With so many discords and unresolved problems, this is hardly the right moment for the EU to confront Russia. The alliance faces a plethora of problems; the divisions on many of them are strong. The artificially created problem of anti-Russian sanctions is causing a major rift in the EU at the most inopportune times.
With the United Europe project in doldrums, the Greater Europe extending from Lisbon to Vladivostok appears to be a promising alternative to the EU, as well as to the UK.
Many ramifications of Brexit are impossible to predict at present. There are only two conclusions that can be made with certainty: (1) the much-vaunted European unity appears to be more of a myth, than reality; (2) Europe will never be the same after the Brexit vote.