Friday

23rd Oct 2020

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.

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  • 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.

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