Europe after Brexit: what now?

Brexit is disastrous for the UK, but also a crisis for the EU. Some EU observers (generally firm federalists) have argued Brexit will do the EU a favour, on the basis that an obstructive UK has been an obstacle to building Europe. They are making a serious mistake – one which risks blinding them to how best to mitigate the damage done.

Britain was the second-biggest economy in the EU. It’s now the third-biggest, courtesy of the Leave vote, but it remains one of the major developed economies. It has been a powerful voice for a deeper, more complete single market. In foreign and defence policy, it plays an important role. Granted, Britain is already semi-detached in many areas and was due to become more so. But despite its Government’s worst efforts in recent years, its size and strategic assets have made it an important voice in the EC and then EU since 1973. Now it has set a deadly precedent. A member state pulling out of the EU is no longer an abstract hypothetical, but a real option. Europe’s future may well depend on getting its response right.

British citizens need to show some humility in commenting here. Britain voted to leave: quite fairly, the EU is hardly going to design itself to suit us. Of course, the Bratislava Summit also shows that ‘the EU’ includes many different actors (as ever). I write, though, as a committed European who wants to see the EU survive and prosper.

How should the EU deal with the UK?

Governments of the EU-27 should clearly put the the rest of the EU’s interests first. Britain has the right to decide to leave; it has no right to demand that others continue to go out of their way to help it, having done so. When you leave a club, you forfeit solidarity from the club. The three Brexiteers can bluster all they like; it will only harm their cause, and deservedly so. Frankly, the long-term peace, security and prosperity of Europe are more important than pandering to British exceptionalism.

That said, it isn’t in the EU’s interests to deliberately ‘punish’ the UK. A club of democracies, founded to preserve peace and freedom in Europe, shouldn’t punish a country for voting the wrong way. Further, though Britain is less important to the rest of the EU than it tends to believe, it will be the EU’s largest trading partner on exit and will remain a major player in Atlantic defence and security. A constructive and, preferably, close relationship remains in both sides’ interest.

Overall, the priorities should be: to protect the integrity and viability of the European project; to ensure EU members’ reasonable interests are protected; and to ensure continued cooperation in key areas.

No special punishment, no special deals

The EU should, therefore, neither reward nor punish the UK. Brexit needs to have clear consequences, partly on principle and partly to prevent contagion, and Britain shouldn’t be allowed to escape the fundamental tradeoffs which go with it. But if it is willing to play by the rules, the EU should be willing to play ball.

For instance: the EU should categorically refuse EEA-style single market membership without free movement of labour, the acceptance of relevant single market legislation and a budget contribution. It should, though, be willing to offer the full EEA deal to the UK and seek to persuade the EFTA members to do likewise. And where EEA countries currently join EU initiatives (such as extradition arrangements very close to those in the European Arrest Warrant), the EU should not unreasonably refuse access to a UK in the EEA if it wants it.

In the same way, if London insists on ending free movement, then the EU should be clear that the price is leaving the single market. Any interim EEA-type model should be clearly time-limited, with its endpoint in the EU’s gift and not the UK’s. But the EU-27 should also move a UK trade deal to the front of the queue in these circumstances; the UK will be the EU’s single largest trading partner, so this is in both sides’ interest. And neither side should want the transition to take longer or be messier than necessary.


The EU has one member state uniquely affected by Brexit: Ireland. Joining the EC, as it then was, allowed the UK and Ireland to meet as equal partners for the first time. The open border for people is currently possible because free movement of EU citizens (and EEA workers) applies to both; the open border for goods has been underpinned by the EU customs union, removing any requirement for customs checks and rules of origin at the border. EU membership underpins key aspects of the Belfast Agreement. And though Europe has allowed Ireland to emerge from the UK’s economic orbit, Britain remains a vital trading partner for Ireland.

The Irish Government has every reason to be appalled by Brexit. The economic damage sustained will be greater than for any other state except Britain itself. But more than that: British voters have put the open Irish border at risk. People in Northern Ireland grew up with checkpoints and police queries; now, crossing from Derry to Letterkenny is an uninterrupted bus ride. The Belfast Agreement, the end of the checkpoints, the softening of the Border and a virtual end to its day-to-day presence: all of this was key to devising a version of the United Kingdom which Northern Irish nationalists could tolerate.

The EU should do its best to protect Northern Ireland from the consequences of English and Welsh voters’ decision. Its scope will be much more limited if Britain decides not to seek single market membership in order to end free movement and, especially, if it decides to step outside a customs union with the EU. But the European project was founded to end wars: it should put a peace process above ensuring there are consequences for the UK. Legally, Ireland has a parallel opt-out from the Schengen Area and can opt into EU measures on the ‘area of freedom, security and justice’ (or not), like the UK. Ireland’s consent would be required to end this, but the wording may in some cases need to be amended to reflect Brexit. The EU should not make difficulties here where they can be avoided.

Foreign and defence policy

In foreign policy, the UK will remain a reasonably important power, though greatly diminished by its exit, and far more important to the EU than any other democratic European non-member state. Further, Brexit means the EU’s potential in foreign and defence policy is dramatically reduced.

Obviously, the UK has always insisted that these areas should stay intergovernmental. But it boasts one of the world’s best diplomatic services. It is the EU’s largest defence spender. It has a seat on the Security Council. Its international networks and connections are damaged by Brexit, but close cultural and historic ties remain. It has the second-largest development budget in the world. And so on. EU sanctions without UK involvement are clearly much less effective; and in most areas, the UK and EU will continue to share key interests and views. The EU should therefore regard the UK, along with the US, as one of its most important partners for the purposes of the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) – on Ukraine, Iran, the Middle East and more besides.

Following Brexit, enhanced co-operation on defence may well be revisited in the EU. France, Germany, Belgium and others have often raised this. The UK, by contrast, has always had firm limits here, even though it kickstarted the Common Security and Defence Policy with France. There’s nothing inherently wrong with going further, so long as it remains compatible with the Atlantic alliance: the US supports more credible European defence. But the fact remains that one of Europe’s two main military powers is leaving the EU. Franco-British co-operation would probably be more formidable than the EU without Britain. If the UK shows an interest in European defence co-operation, whether on a Franco-British, multilateral or UK-EU basis, Paris and Brussels’ doors should be open.

Beyond Brexit: what should the EU do now?

Since Britain voted Leave, support for the EU has risen in other countries. Given the chaos which ensued in Britain and the evident lack of a plan on the part of its anti-Europeans, perhaps that’s unsurprising. For now, the mess in which the UK has landed itself will be a deterrent – and as the price it will pay becomes apparent, that deterrent may even grow for a few years. In the long term, though, clearly it will remain a developed liberal democracy, and ‘life after the EU’ will now be a concrete possibility.

Eurosceptics’ gifts to Europe

Obviously, the UK has been more sceptical of further integration than any other EU member state – a fact some have cited to claim the EU will gain from its departure. But other countries have often relied on the UK’s outspokenness to avoid picking fights themselves. When the UK deliberately sat on its hands during discussions about ‘political union’ in the 1980s, for instance, it rapidly became clear most other countries did not actually want to go much further than London did. I suspect we may well see other countries being louder about their own reservations in future, now they can’t rely on the UK to pick a fight first.

More importantly, UK politicians’ euroscepticism may well have helped limit the extent to which the EU has drifted from what its peoples will accept. No one who looks at the referendum on the Constitutional Treaty in France, the rise of Alternative für Deutschland, the anger in Greece, the Dutch vote on the free trade deal with Ukraine or the forthcoming Hungarian referendum on refugee quotas can see anti-EU sentiment as just a British phenomenon. But most other EU countries’ political classes have been more uniformly pro-EU than ours. Britain is an outlier. It’s also Europe’s canary down the mineshaft.

Of course, different countries have different reasons for their scepticism. Worries about migration (either from within or outside the EU) abound. The Dutch, like Britain, worry about whether other EU members follow the rules. The Spanish, Greeks and Italians resent ‘EU-imposed austerity’. The French worry about l’Europe libérale and were always unenthusiastic at best about enlargement. The Nordics, like Britain, have always been relative sceptics. Eastern Europeans only regained real sovereignty from the Soviets a quarter-century ago: they are in no hurry to hand too much of it over again, even on a democratic basis. But the fact that these reasons are so different is exactly the point. Europe’s peoples don’t agree on enough about their preferred destinations, at least for now, for the EU to just march boldly forward after Brexit.

I am a passionate pro-European. I always have been. The first vote I ever cast helped elect the first European Parliament to include eight former Communist states, thanks to the enlargement which is one of our continent’s finest achievements – a Europe whole and free. I will never dismiss how precious it is that EU members don’t even consider war with each other, and I give the EU a huge amount of the credit for that. In an ideal world, I am a European federalist. I believe in European integration, for all Europeans’ sake.

But its most important gifts are twofold: a guarantee that Europeans settle their affairs by rules and laws, not force and armies; and the entrenchment of a constitutional, democratic continent. Its institutions and powers are vital means to those ends (a basic point the British have refused to understand), but they are not ends in themselves. Without a large Eurosceptic member state as a check, the gap between Europe and its peoples could well bring the whole union crashing down. The European ideal must not be sacrificed to European federalism.

Stop, look and listen

Responding with a great leap forward in terms of powers is thus exactly what the EU should not do. European integration is not a bicycle; it won’t fall over if it doesn’t go forever forward in all circumstances. There is, clearly, a vital debate about what powers are necessary to make the eurozone function as a currency union – that was true before 23 June and it’s still true now. But beyond that, EU member states and institutions should state plainly that no major new initiatives to pool more sovereignty are expected for the currently foreseeable future.

EU institutions and governments should, instead, focus on what Europe can do within its current powers to help its citizens, and to show they actually do have some control over the EU. Jobs and economic growth are, obviously, vital here. The exact blend of completing the single market and a strong set of social standards needs to be debated: I suspect explicitly linking the two might both help Europe’s economies and reassure some of its sceptics. A stronger focus on new industries and growth areas throughout the EU, and a commitment by national governments to actually tell their voters what the EU has added, would help too. It may well be worth doing things designed to help job opportunities in Eastern Europe, expressly aiming to reduce migration flows to western Europe. These are only broad-brush points: but they suggest a direction of travel.

Finally, the EU needs to assure its citizens that there are limits to how far its borders will go. Enlargement has been one of the EU’s great successes, which the UK championed. No one should apologise for the enlargement to eastern Europe: bringing the former Communist states into a community of democratic states embodies the best of Europe’s values. The EU is a vital anchor for the security and stability of the Western Balkans – the Brussels Agreement between Serbia and Kosovo, helped enormously by their wish to join the EU, is a powerful example.

But as the UK’s referendum showed, Turkish membership of the EU is toxic with too many voters in too many countries. In reality, we know it’s not really going to happen – too many governments oppose it and Turkey is rushing headlong away from being in any way eligible to join. But while you can usually get away with meaningless promises in foreign policy, in domestic politics they frighten voters and leach public consent. Turkish accession is dead: the EU should, when it can find a geopolitically acceptable moment, tell its peoples so.

Fireproofing Europe

The first step to making the best of things is to recognise how bad they are. Britain will lose much more than the rest of Europe from its decision, but this is a body blow to the EU nonetheless. This is not good news, or insignificant. Britain’s decision has badly damaged the network of institutions on which Europe relies. It has also delivered a deadly warning, which the EU can heed – or not.

The EU should neither indulge nor punish the UK. Britain needs to accept that Brexit has consequences, choose its tradeoffs and then live with its decisions. But though it’s clear who needs whom more, the EU nonetheless has no interest in a disorderly break-up, or any more acrimony than can be helped. So while refusing to spare the UK the consequences of its choice through some sort of sweetheart deal, it should stand ready to put the EEA or a deep free trade deal on the table. And it should see the UK as a major partner for the future in the affairs of Europe as a whole.

More important is how the EU conducts itself to try and prevent future Brexits. It would be a serious mistake to respond to the crisis by pushing integration further and faster: the democratic elastic binding Europe and its nations is stretching dangerously thin as matters stand. Better to consolidate, to show what Europe can do for its peoples with the powers it already has and to address their fears.

23 June was a dark day for Britain and for Europe. Nothing will change that. It is already a (self-inflicted) tragedy for Britain’s future, role in the world and reputation. Europeans, including British Europeans, can only hope the EU does not let it become the first act in a tragedy engulfing the whole Union.

You may also be interested in my blog from June on how the UK should approach Brexit, following the referendum.

This piece was subsequently amended to highlight the fact that the EU customs union is the key challenge relating to the Irish Border.

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