Monday

8th Mar 2021

Opinion

The bright side of 'Brexit Day' for the rest of the EU

  • Even Britain's pro-Remain MPs would have been unlikely to risk further alienating an already angry Brexit electorate by supporting deeper EU integration or ambitious reforms (Photo: Peter Teffer)

Many on the EU side had long hoped the UK would change its mind and call off Brexit after a second referendum.

Their hopes were crushed, however, when Boris Johnson secured an overwhelming election victory last month.

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Yet a repeal of Article 50 was never in the EU's best interest. Europe's leaders may not have realised it, but it was always also in the EU's interest to 'get Brexit done'.

Three-and-a-half years after the EU referendum, the UK will finally leave the EU on the 31st of January.

For a long time, it seemed like Brexit might not actually happen. In fact, it was only a few months ago that a so-called 'People's Vote', a second EU referendum, seemed a distinct possibility. Not only that; polls consistently predicted a win for 'Remain'.

The EU side had made no secret of its (unofficial) support for such a second referendum. Although patience with Westminster was increasingly wearing thin over the last year, many EU officials had not given up the hope that the UK would change its mind and repeal Article 50.

These hopes were dashed, however, when Johnson secured an overwhelming election victory last month, effectively putting an end to the campaign for a People's Vote and for a continued stay in the Union.

The EU reacted to the election result with both relief and regret. Relief because the result provided clarity and meant that the withdrawal agreement bill could finally pass the House of Commons, regret because it meant that the chances of a 'Bremain' were now officially dead.

Yet the EU's regret is somewhat misplaced.

While the outcome of the 2016 referendum was regrettable, its implementation is not.

A repeal of Article 50 was never in the EU's interest. After all, things wouldn't have simply gone back to normal. The proverbial cat was already out of the bag.

Neverending referendums

Even if the Remain camp had secured and won a second referendum, the margin would have likely been small. The Brexit camp would have felt duped – not unjustifiably so – and, in their turn, would have probably spent the next years trying to overturn that result.

Brexit would have continued to dominate British and European politics for the foreseeable future – just when the EU desperately needs to turn its attention to more important challenges – such as implementing the European Green Deal, strengthening the effectiveness of its common foreign and security policy, and protecting the rule of law in its member states.

Moreover, had the UK decided to stay in the Union, it would have remained an obstacle to deeper integration and EU reform.

The UK has always been a difficult partner, of course. But a suspension of Brexit would have greatly exacerbated its obstructive role. For one thing, Brexiteer MPs would have been motivated to be as difficult as possible.

Last year, the prominent Brexiteer, Jacob Rees-Mogg, tweeted that, in the case of a prolonged stay in the EU, the UK would have to "veto any increase in the budget, obstruct the putative EU army and block Mr [Emmanuel] Macron's integrationist schemes".

Even Remainer MPs, however, would have been unlikely to risk further alienating an already angry Brexit electorate by supporting deeper integration or ambitious reforms.

Yet in times of climate change, increased (geopolitical) security challenges, and digital transformation, the EU can hardly afford to stick to the status quo.

Which is why Britain's withdrawal from the Union on the 31st of January is a good thing for the EU, even if Brexit as such is not. The Brexit saga will of course be far from over on the 31st, with the negotiations over the future relationship still to begin.

But at least now, the EU can enter the negotiations with clarity and without any illusions. More importantly, it can finally start turning the page and direct its attention to matters that have been neglected for too long.

Author bio

Dr Luuk Molthof is senior research fellow at the d|part think tank for political participation in Berlin.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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