Saturday

25th Sep 2021

Column

And what if Brexit becomes a success?

Last autumn the French magazine Le Point published an article with the ominous headline "Whenever the British Leave, There's Chaos."

The article described how India and Pakistan, Cyprus, Palestine, and Ireland all experienced how Great Britain, the colonial power, could no longer cope with their problems or no longer wanted to cope, and hastily withdrew without worrying about the consequences of a badly-managed exit.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

  • If EU countries are too generous they could, paradoxically, make it dangerous for themselves. If it gets better outside the club than inside, everybody will want to get out

In all these places the British faced ethnic or religious struggles.

First, they tried to separate people. When that didn't work, they left in a hurry. The consequences were terrible: war and ethnic cleansing. To this day, those problems remain unresolved.

The real question for Le Point was, of course: Will the United Kingdom leave the European Union in chaos, too?

Boris Johnson's determination last October to leave the EU, without any further extensions and "whatever happens", reminded the author of Lord Mountbatten's decision to leave India in August 1947.

At first glance this comparison seems strange and far-fetched.

The UK is no longer a colonial power, nor has the EU been a British colony. The balance of power is rather different now.

Since the Brexit referendum the EU has been more dominant than the UK: the withdrawal agreement was formulated and dictated by the EU, almost from A-Z. Both the pace and structure of the talks were largely devised in Brussels, not London.

But Brexit can still hurt the EU.

The real danger lies in the success of the operation. Almost everyone assumes the UK will suffer an economic blow after Brexit - not now, but when it really leaves by the end of 2020.

But if, after that, it recovers quickly or starts thriving, some Europeans might conclude they want an exit, too.

What success means, depends on the definition used.

Is it defined in terms of economic growth, or do social equality and optimism ('Cool Britannia') also come into the equation? For 'purist' Brexiteers, success means complete national control over all legislation.

India, Pakistan, Cyprus, Palestine, Ireland...EU?

Leavers and Remainers have already started battles over the success question. Some ministers are happily tweeting about Britain getting back control over passports or a "newly taken up WTO seat" – while both, of course, have always been national to start with. Continental far-right politicians eagerly repost this sovereign nonsense.

So far Brexit has been good for the EU. A European Parliament poll shows that 68 percent of European citizens think EU membership is good for their country. In the eurozone support for the euro stands at 76 percent, according to the eurobarometer. That's the highest score ever.

The EU-27 have been united so far. Citizens appreciate this.

The political turmoil in the UK, reports about businesses leaving and predictions of food and medicine shortages in case of a 'no deal' have clearly boosted their satisfaction with the EU.

Many EU countries have made temporary deals with the UK to prevent air traffic control from collapsing, and made these public. EU citizens are aware how disruptive exits can be.

In some parts of the world people are used to unpredictability. Europeans are not.

Brexit has made them aware of the importance to stay together, especially in an environment that is increasingly hostile with big powers like Russia, Turkey, China and the US trying to divide and weaken us.

European citizens may still not be very happy with the EU, but at the moment they are rather happy in the EU. As a result eurosceptic politicians like Marine Le Pen have stopped campaigning for more exits.

But assuming that things will stay that way is naive. While the EU can politically benefit from a disastrous Brexit, it can be undermined by a successful Brexit.

In a Spectator article in 2018, David Green, director of the British think tank Civitas, spelled this out: "The EU is terrified that we will make a success of our independence." The EU knows Schengen and the euro are doomed, he argued.

If the UK prospers it will send a message to countries such as Italy and Spain that there is another way: "we can show the world how misguided the EU project is."

European politicians and civil servants are aware of this risk. On the day Queen Elizabeth signed the Brexit papers former Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi tweeted: "Boris will do everything to make #Brexit a success. If I were a European leader, I would immediately worry about giving new impetus to EU project. Brussels must move on now: ideas, dreams, soul. It's time."

Giving impetus to reform is exactly what French president Emmanuel Macron tries to do when he promotes citizens dialogues and a conference about the future of Europe.

The latest negotiating tactics coming from London seem to suggest the British will try to bluff and destabilise EU negotiators and renege on past promises, for instance on the Irish border question. Whether this works or not remains to be seen. European capitals expected this, and say it is probably just the start.

However, the EU is in a bind.

Even if London behaves despicably, betraying trust, the EU doesn't want Brexit to be a disaster. Half of all UK trade is with the EU. If Britain suffers badly, EU countries suffer, too – 15 percent of their trade is with the UK.

Moreover, on foreign policy and security issues they want the UK to remain close.

But if EU countries are too generous they could, paradoxically, make it dangerous for themselves. If it gets better outside the club than inside, everybody will want to get out.

Author bio

Caroline de Gruyter is a Europe correspondent and columnist for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad. This article has been adapted from one of her columns in NRC.

Disclaimer

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

Boris' Brexit bluff? - UK will resist alignment to the end

Boris Johnson's special advisor, Dominic Cummings believes in hard deadlines, rapid transformations and visible delivery. Whether or not what he wants is possible, the EU should be sure that he will resist alignment to the end.

EU and UK already lock horns over post-Brexit EU rules

The EU wants to prevent the UK undercutting its firms and businesses. It offers a "highly ambitious" trade deal in exchange for sticking to the rules. British PM Boris Johnson's response: no way.

Brexit can spur EU fight on bureaucracy

The reaction of the EU is horror over the level playing field. My reaction is the total opposite. Britain's cocky and ambitious goals for its business climate is one of the best things that can happen to Europe.

Sexism and the selection of the European Parliament president

Looking at the historical record, a clear picture emerges: the president of the European Parliament is an above-middle aged white man, most likely German — and with an overwhelming likelyhood to be conservative or socialist.

The EU's 'backyard' is not in the Indo-Pacific

Europe is no longer an Indo-Pacific power. It will not become an Indo-Pacific power. And if it keeps overreaching its geopolitical ambitions, Europe might lose its credibility as a power - entirely.

News in Brief

  1. Italy arrests Puigdemont on Spanish warrant
  2. EU and US hold trade talks despite French wrath
  3. EMA to decide on Pfizer vaccine booster in October
  4. EU welcomes Polish TV-station move
  5. Ukrainian parliament passes law to curb power of oligarchs
  6. EU could force Poland to pay lignite-coal fine
  7. Report: EU and US concerned by tech-giants' power
  8. EU states sign 'transparency pledge'

Russia's biggest enemy? Its own economy

Russia's leaders have been fully aware of the reasons for its underlying economic weakness for more than two decades. Dependency on energy exports and the lack of technological innovation were themes of Vladimir Putin's first state-of-the-nation address back in 2000.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNATO Secretary General guest at the Session of the Nordic Council
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersCan you love whoever you want in care homes?
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersNineteen demands by Nordic young people to save biodiversity
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersSustainable public procurement is an effective way to achieve global goals
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Council enters into formal relations with European Parliament
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersWomen more active in violent extremist circles than first assumed

Latest News

  1. Activists: 'More deaths' expected on Polish-Belarus border
  2. EU unveils common charger plan - forcing Apple redesign
  3. Central Europe leaders rail against 'new liberal woke virus'
  4. Yemen's refugees in 'appalling conditions', says UN agency
  5. VW emissions software was illegal, top EU lawyer says
  6. Sexism and the selection of the European Parliament president
  7. More French names linked to Russia election-monitoring
  8. Negotiations set for new, tougher, EU ethics body

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us