The vote by the British people in favor of leaving the European Union clearly has profound implications for that country. Equally interesting, however, will be its effect on the EU itself. For some, Brexit represents an opportunity for the remaining member states to forge ahead. Freed of its most troublesome member state, so the argument goes, the path will be cleared for long overdue reforms. Such arguments, however, are flawed. Britain’s departure will provoke a long and painful period of negotiation. And even thereafter, the EU will not be better placed to address the numerous challenges confronting it.
The notion that an EU without Britain would be stronger and more efficient rests on three flawed assumptions related to: what a Brexit would entail, how Britain has behaved as an EU member, and what the remaining member states would be capable of once it has finally left.
First, Brexit itself. This would not be an event, but a process. And, potentially, a very lengthy and highly bad-tempered process. Negotiating a post-membership deal with one of Europe’s most populous, economically successful, and internationally well-connected countries will not be a side show but the central issue for policymakers—remember how distracting negotiations over the relative triviality of David Cameron’s “renegotiation” of the terms of British membership proved to be.
That will be as nothing compared to attempts to fundamentally rewrite a relationship with a former member state. Debates will be highly charged from the outset. And they won’t be helped by elections in France and Germany in 2017, which will add to the incentives for political posturing rather than cool-headed negotiation. Because the discussions will have significant domestic political repercussions in all member states, calm heads will be in short supply. At a minimum, therefore, the immediate impact of a Brexit would be to consume a significant amount of time that could be better spent on other things, and impede attempts to confront the numerous other challenges that should be dominating the EU agenda.
Second, assumptions about what the EU might be like without the UK are frequently based on a mistaken idea about how the UK has behaved within it. For all London’s intransigence, and for all the hostility in its rhetoric about the EU, the fact remains that the UK has done as much, if not more, than any other state to shape the contemporary Union. From the single market to the environment, from defense to enlargement, many of the key developments in European integration bear the British imprint.
Nor, indeed, were the British necessarily the worst offenders when it comes to holding others hostage while pursuing our own narrow self-interest. It was the French who brought the EEC to a standstill in 1965, when General de Gaulle was faced with developments he opposed. The Spanish were, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, masters at threatening a veto to extract more funding for the European Community’s poorer regions. Greece pulled the same trick to ensure that Cyprus was admitted, and as for Cyprus itself, it has proved a thorn in the side over countless issues, amongst them its willingness to put the lives of Western personnel in danger by its intransigence over NATO-EU links.
Beware, then, the lazy argument that Britain was a uniquely troublesome partner. And, in particular, beware the notion that its exit would leave the other member states able to forge ahead with integrative initiatives that would make the Union a more efficient and effective political actor.
Here, perhaps, is the greatest canard of all. It was not London that prevented the Eurozone from effectively addressing the critical structural problems that continue to threaten its survival. It was not Brits who blocked the expansion of the single market to cover services. It was not because of us that Europeans got used to free riding so shamelessly on American power. Nor was it British obstructionism that lay behind a failure to deal effectively with the migrant crisis.
In all these areas, the roadblocks lie in continental Europe. Whether it be profound disagreement about whether the Eurozone would be better served by tighter fiscal rules or increased risk sharing. Whether it be a desire to protect national service industries coddled for many years by indulgent and protectionist governments. Whether it be a failure to take security seriously, or an aversion to the use of military force, or conflicting approaches to the refugee crisis, none of the myriad problems bedevilling the Union are down to that infamous British intransigence.
It is hard, then, to foresee any way in which a British exit will reinforce the ability of the EU to carry out the reforms it so desperately needs. That being said, the greatest fear held by those most concerned about Brexit has not materialized. For many in continental Europe, the most serious potential consequence of a British exit was contagion. The sight of a member state leaving the club, it was claimed, might inspire Eurosceptics the continent over.
Certainly, in the days immediately after the referendum, Eurosceptic parties in a number of other member states called for their own referendums on membership. Yet as the chaos gripping Britain became manifest—the pound plunged, markets were volatile, and the government fell—early polls suggested that Brexit had triggered a surge in support for EU membership across the continent.
In this way, if no other, the decision of the British people might reinforce, rather than undermine, European integration; it now seems unlikely that any kind of contagion will afflict the Union. That being said, this is scant comfort. The problems outlined above remain. And with or without Britain, the constraints on the emergence of solutions are as strong as ever. The EU will remain flawed—caught between purely national policies that do not work and further integration that cannot be secured. And all signs are that here that it will remain this way for the foreseeable future.
Clearly, Britain was not always an easy or helpful partner to Europe. And our politics often got in the way of our ability to engage effectively. Yet lazy stereotypes about British obstinacy, or the continued tendency of London to impede the “progress” of European integration, conceal a more complex reality. One consequence of a Brexit will be to force our partners to ask painful questions about who is really to blame for the EU’s current ineffectiveness, and look closer to home for the answers. An Anglo-Saxon scapegoat may have its uses. But Brexit will not be the first step toward a reformed European Union.