Brexit has certainly shaken the European Union. But apart from the mess over the timing, pace and substance of Britain’s EU divorce, no one should expect any other major changes in way the now-27 member bloc conducts itself. And, oh yes, don’t expect any rapid EU unravelling either.
True, there has been a spate of statements on the need for “political reflection to give an impulse to further reform”. The foreign ministers of France and Germany have talked in a heady fashion of their vision for further steps in the direction of a political union. And there’s even a brand new EU “global strategy” articulating the bloc’s vision for dealing with the world outside.
The far right, meanwhile, is predictably gloating over the “Leave EU” message delivered by British voters and demanding similar national referenda on EU membership in their countries. Europe’s populists will certainly continue to make gains in elections in the coming years. But the likelihood of other EU referenda is slim.
Similarly, those vowing to show that the Union is strong and unchanged by Britain’s withdrawal and that the EU will push on without the presence of Britain as the perennial naysayer, the sceptic and the doubter are on the wrong track. The truth is different.
Britain’s objections focused on the EU’s overly ambitious plans a further pooling of sovereignty and the bloc’s failure to hammer out a rational and fair immigration policy. These are also opposed by many other EU states, not just Britain.
On questions related to the further development of the EU single market, Britain was usually in the vanguard of states wanting the removal of internal barriers. On trade, it took a strong anti-protectionist line. And for all the anti-immigration talk, Britain’s multi-cultural landscape stands out in an EU where minorities are not as visible as they should and could be.
Europe’s internal divisions are not about to disappear. The squabbling and wrangling over the EU’s future will continue — perhaps even become shriller. There is no guarantee that the advice to act responsibly given to the EU by US Secretary of State John Kerry will be heard.
What Brexit has done, however, is create uncertainty on global financial markets triggered by the fall in the value of the pound. Some of Asia’s biggest economies have warned that Brexit could cast a shadow over the world economy for years to come.
Global business leaders are already rethinking their export and investment strategies to take account of Britain’s imminent departure from the EU.
More is at stake, however. The EU has long inspired nations across the globe with its message of reconciliation among former adversaries and as a project for peace and stability. In varying ways and to varying degrees, many have also looked to Europe in their own quest for regional integration and cooperation.
That reputation has now taken a body blow. Both Britain and the EU appear diminished to a closely watching world. Those opposed to regional cooperation are likely to take heart from the EU’s difficulties. But it would be unfortunate if the EU crisis puts the brakes on other regions’ plans for integration.
Significantly, none of the EU’s foreign partners — except Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee for US president and possibly Russian President Vladimir Putin — is applauding.
Much will depend on how British and EU leaders conduct themselves over the coming weeks and months. Britain’s pro-Leave campaigners have already sullied the country’s reputation by misinforming and misleading their citizens and by fanning the fires of hatred and racism. It will be tough to correct their mistakes — if that is indeed what the next British Brexit government intends to do.
EU leaders, meanwhile, face a stark choice: they can either listen to and respond to the real concerns of their citizens, including on immigration, and seek a dignified response to the latest crisis. Or — as many fear — they can engage in yet more squabbling over Europe’s future direction.
The route they take will determine whether or not other eurosceptic movements will become even stronger in the days ahead and present their own blueprints for an EU exit.
Europe’s response will be watched carefully not just by the US where fears are growing of a Trump victory in the November presidential elections but also by China, India, Japan and Europe’s other important partners which have invested heavily in Britain as a “gateway” to Europe.
No responsible global power wanted Britain to leave the EU and today no major country wants the EU to unravel. True, some countries may want to negotiate new trade pacts with Britain — but as the US and India have warned, such discussions will not be their top priority. The EU is a much larger trading bloc than Britain — and will continue to count for more on world stage.
For Europe’s trading partners Britain’s absence will be especially felt in EU discussions on trade agreements, whether bilateral free trade accords such as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) or the wider multilateral trading system. London has taken a strong stance in favour of granting market economy status to China. It has also been among the lead players in the EU’s trade relations with many South Asian countries, including India, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The departure of Britain as the EU’s prime military power, is going to hit hard at a time when Europe is trying to push its security credentials, especially in Asia. A new EU “global strategy”, which cannot rely on and use Britain’s wide network of global partners, will appear less impressive.
In the end, however, once the market turmoil is over and the reality of Brexit sinks in, it is the blow to the EU’s reputation as an agent for change and transformation which will resonate most strongly across the world.