Michele Bellini / Sep 2017
Many still remember that morning of June 24th, 2016. It was probably the first time that Europe found itself truly united. Not much united in diversity, but united in surprise: a blessing for some and a nightmare for others. From Tallinn to Lisbon, from Athens to Dublin all the media were announcing that Great Britain had voted to leave the European Union. Since then, many things have been said and written, while fewer ones were effectively done.
Hard Brexit, soft Brexit, Citizens’ rights, Article 50, Norwegian model…while negotiations advance and technicalities monopolize headlines, the reflection should be upon some of the consequences for Europe’s future. One strikes above all: Brexit might have showed the EU how to save itself.
In a thought provoking piece, Oxford university professor Kalypso Nicolaidis analyzed the referendum through the lenses of mythology and one interpretation sees Brexit as a sacrifice.
“A story of sacrifice on the altar of the greater good. Britain takes the form of Agamemnon’s daughter, Iphigenia,“the strong-born,” offered to the Gods for the winds to rise and the Greek flotilla to sail off to conquer Troy. Brexit means that you leave the EU in order to save it.”
A deliberately heroic sacrifice one may argue. Yet, there is little heroism in Brexit. While retaining its redeeming power, the Brexit sacrifice is rather accidental in nature. There are at least three unintended consequences.
Listening to Juncker’s State of the Union speeches, one year ago the EU was living through an “existential crisis”, while today “the wind is back in Europe's sails.” How so? Last year, Brexit came as the icing on an already bitter cake, which tasted of deep cleavages. Yet, instead of triggering a domino effect, Brexit created a very good reason for the EU27 to be united. It took less than fifteen minutes for the EU leaders to give the Commission a “firm and fair political mandate” for the negotiations.
Very rarely have important decisions been taken so smoothly, not to mention that Michel Barnier – the EU chief negotiator – enjoys a favorable opinion in many member states: an unusual luxury for Brussels’ representatives these days. The institutional level mirrors this unity, with the European parliament much aligned behind the Council and the Commission.
Notwithstanding the optimism, this compact approach is likely to start showing some cracks as negotiations move onto phase two (i.e. the future relationship) and conflicting interests within the bloc will inevitably arise. Nonetheless, the fact remains: Europe has responded with resilience and unity, finding itself stronger than what it expected to be. Hopefully, in the future the lesson will be remembered.
Brexit is also a history of revelation: revelation of complexity. With unprecedented interdependence and interconnectedness, negotiators must find creative solutions, since it is the first time that the EU organizes divergence, instead of convergence. Such complexity is slowly but constantly revealing the enticing but over simplistic nature of what taking back control really means. The more time goes by, the more the UK softens its stance: May’s speech in Florence will mark another step in this direction.
In a sense, Brexit is a grand-scale socioeconomic experiment showing the peoples of Europe that magic wands only belong in Hogwarts. The complexity of the world can only be embraced and not even Boris Johnson can keep dodging it. Europeans seem to have grasped it, as the electoral events following Brexit suggested. European leaders should exploit the momentum and embrace complexity, which pragmatically means having the courage of being openly pro-European and speaking truthfully.
Who are we? Where do we come from? Where do we go? Is there life after…Brexit? These are some of the existential questions that Brexit sheds light upon. In February 2016, when David Cameron negotiated with the Union, for the first time ever it was put pen to paper that the “ever closer union” could not necessarily be the final destination of the European journey for some.
If European leaders, instead of keeping a wait-and-see approach, had supported the deal more, the Remain camp would have had a more appealing message. It could have been the first step towards the formalization of a multi-speed Europe. Ironically, only after Brexit national leaders started endorsing differentiated integration.
Do we all share the same destination? Do we all have the same idea of integration? Brexit offers a concrete chance to ask again those questions, and pragmatism and intellectual honesty suggest negative answers. The idea of a rather fast single-speed Europe imagined by Juncker in the State of the Union clashes with reality and risks overshadowing the necessary debate on the opportunities of differentiated integration. The future of the bloc depends on it.
Europe needs a credible vision to save itself. The Brexit sacrifice has unintentionally offered a unique opportunity to highlight European value added, debunk the populist illusion, and make a new political vision emerge. It cannot be wasted, otherwise, the sacrifice will be in vain.