BERLIN — Now what? From Berlin to Brussels, from Madrid to Malmö, Europeans woke up Friday with more questions than answers.
Does Brexit mean the European Union is doomed? Is it just a matter of time before the EU unravels amid pressures of populism, economic stagnation and infighting within the bloc?
The short answer: No.
After the initial shock wears off, Brexit, like any reality check, will focus the European mind. History has shown that Europe’s leaders are at their sharpest in times of crisis. The ossification that plagues Europe’s decision making in normal times suddenly lifts. Consider the velocity of Europe’s response during the euro crisis and, more recently, the urgency to cut a deal with Turkey on refugees.
When it wants to, Europe acts.
Brexit will be no different.
For all the European Union’s flaws, the case for its continued existence remains compelling, whether in terms of economics, politics or security. The U.K., with its long history of Euroskepticsm and belief in its exceptionalism, was never a typical EU member. As one German commentator quipped on Friday: “Now I’ll have to exchange money and present my passport when I fly to London.”
Yes, there’s a growing frustration with Brussels in many quarters of the Union, but a clear majority of Europeans still sees no alternative. That won’t change.
“This is a wake-up call that everyone will hear and then realize that if we don’t reform Europe, it will collapse,” Hans-Peter Uhl, a senior conservative MP, told German radio.
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Not that fixing it will be easy. The divisive debates over the EU’s direction (more Europe, less Europe?) will continue. But they’re also necessary. And now they’re not on the backburner.
If Remain had prevailed, the EU would have breathed a collective sigh of relief and turned to focus on summer holidays. There would have been no shortage of earnest statements from leaders about understanding the dissatisfaction many Europeans feel.
But then, the EU would have reverted to the norm, trundling along, as ever.
Brexit is the equivalent of a wheel coming off.
The repair won’t be overseen by Brussels, but by member states, chiefly Germany and France.
Kill or cure
The most immediate effect of Brexit for the EU is that Jean-Claude Juncker’s Commission has been further diminished. The Commission president chose to stand on the sidelines of the debate, making his preference clear, but not actively campaigning against Brexit, a call that many will now question.
What’s more, the deal Juncker negotiated with David Cameron earlier this year to keep the U.K. was clearly not good enough.
However difficult those talks were, the EU’s executive branch will be forced to bear much responsibility for the loss of the bloc’s second-largest member. Juncker’s “more political” Commission will face pressure to revert to the administrative role it has traditionally played.
Whether Juncker stays or goes, as some are demanding, the weakening of the Commission will strengthen the hand of Council President Donald Tusk. The Pole, beginning at next week’s summit, will play a central role in shaping the reform process that lies ahead. With Juncker’s love-it-or leave it approach to Europe discredited, Tusk has an opening to pursue the more pragmatic strategy he has been urging. Expect to hear less kumbaya about Europe as project of “peace and fraternity” and more about the EU’s practical benefits to Europeans.
“I always remember what my father used to tell me,” Tusk said after the results became clear Friday. “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.”
With anti-EU populist forces on the march in France and Germany, the likelihood that Berlin and Paris will push for another great leap of integration, as some predict, is slim, at least until after elections next year. More likely is a hybrid approach that will return some powers to national governments while shifting Europe’s focus to the big picture. In other words: more debate about securing the EU’s external borders, less about weedkiller.
Europe’s doesn’t “need a discussion about ‘more or less,’ but one about ‘more and less,’” said Carsten Brzeski, a former Commission official who now works as an economist for Dutch bank ING.
The broad contours of that approach have already begun to emerge.
Europe needs to “concentrate on the big issues: the refugee question, Putin, digitialization and not on detailed regulations that only complicate daily life,” Manfred Weber, president of the center-right European People’s Party, said this week. “This core question is whether we’re better dealing with the challenges of our time — refugees, terror — alone or together.”
While Juncker has tried to steer the EU bureaucracy in that direction, the strategy hasn’t taken hold. Now Brussels has no choice.
When it comes to defending Europe, the Continent’s establishment parties also have no choice. One of the central lessons from the U.K. referendum is that bashing Europe to score domestic political points, as Cameron did for years before supporting Remain, comes at a price.
Years of Euroskeptic rhetoric by the Conservatives and even some Labour politicians, encouraged by the country’s tabloid media, laid the foundation for Thursday’s Leave vote.
Mainstream European politicians who have flirted with Euroskepticsm in the past are unlikely to continue to do so.
Instead, they will accentuate the negative impact of Brexit. Jobs will be lost. The economy will likely drop into recession. Politically, the U.K. will be diminshed, its “special relationship” with the U.S. little more than nostalgia.
“Out is out,” said veteran German MEP Elmar Brok. “Europe needs to take a tough position in the negotiations over a separation.”
That sentiment was echoed across party lines and borders.
No pain, no gain
There may be no better way to prove the value of the EU than to allow the U.K. to devolve into a backwater.
Yet that would be risky. The economic damage would be considerable on both sides of the channel. The U.K. is Germany’s third-largest export market, for example. One fifth of Germany’s car production goes to the U.K. About 400,000 U.K. citizens work for German companies.
Germany’s business lobby was out in force early Friday, urging for a quick agreement to ensure the U.K. continues to enjoy the benefits of the common market. Years of uncertainty over the EU’s relationship with the U.K. would be devastating, they warned.
“British access to the common market is of enormous importance for us and the faster we have clarity and security, the better it is for companies,” said Markus Kerber, managing director of the German Federation of Industries.
The trouble is that granting the U.K. continued access would give the Brexiters exactly what they want and encourage secessionists in other countries.
Despite the economic damage, the more likely course is that Europe’s leaders will make an example of the U.K., resisting efforts to pursue an arrangement similar those with Switzerland or Norway. European officials say privately that the more chaos that befalls the UK in the coming months, the better. For Europe to survive, the U.K. must be made to feel the pain.
That hard line was already apparent on Friday. “There will be no renegotiation,” the presidents of the European Commission, Parliament and Council said in a rare joint statement on Friday.