Brexit: The sum of all fears


Belgium EU BritainBrexit: More than just removing the Union Jack

I’ll run the risk of not being very original and write about Brexit…I’ll be even less original and defend my hope that the UK remains in the EU – no surprises or spoilers here and if you expect any kind of plot twist, then this is not the blog post you’re looking for.

The technical and statistical arguments work in favour of the Remain camp but democracy isn’t just a contest of advantages and disadvantages. Several arguments used by the Leave field are regularly debunked and presented as half-truths, distortions or just completely wrong but this doesn’t imply that Remain will comfortably win, as the polls consistently show.

From an outsider’s perspective, my only hope is that the UK will vote for remaining in the EU because a vote in favour of Brexit will mark the beginning of the dismantling of the European project. Some voices defend the EU is already dying anyway whereas I think that Brexit would add a major and impossible to heal wound to the already existing problems. If Leave wins on June 23rd, this will be the first time a Member State withdraws from the EU. While from the point of view of the functioning of the institutions themselves this might seem as just having 27 instead of 28 members of the Council and Commissioners, 73 less MEPs and less people in the EEAS and Committee of Regions, the truth is this construct known as the EU is a lot more than the sum of its parts.

How could Brexit be “the beginning of the end” for the EU then? Credibility, or the perception thereof, is crucial to the well-being of any organization. If Leave wins on June 23rd, the blow dealt to the European Union by the departure of a Member State of 43 years will immediately throw the entire credibility and purpose of the European integration project into question – if this Union is indeed a space where its members increase their gains, enlarge their horizons and make their societies more open and free, then why does one of its largest members want to get out?

Political fluctuations within its members are more and more likely to have an effect on the overall shape and depth of the EU – and these fluctuations have repercussions not only within the members themselves but across the entire territory of the members that form that very Union and beyond those borders. We have seen this with nationalist and extremist parties reaching levels that were nearly unthinkable not long ago, with aggressive discourses becoming commonly accepted in the mainstream and gaining more ground in the polls and in the public opinion in mature democracies and societies we take for granted to be free and open.

It’s not difficult to think about what the political consequences of Brexit could be: an electoral result in one country has the potential to galvanize forces with similar goals in other countries and the UK is an island only from a geographical point of view – the boost that Front National in France, PVV in the Netherlands, AfD in Germany and the Swedish Democrats in Sweden will benefit from Brexit could be significant, as these forces derive a big part of their legitimacy from a perception that they represent the real interests of their peoples, rather than those of their countries’ (and the EU’s) elites, a similar perspective to that of the UKIP and a large segment of the Leave campaign. If Leave wins and Brexit does happen, those forces will gain a greater momentum that could push them above the thresholds they have already reached (and which are way too high already), not to mention latent dynamics within the national establishments of the Member States which could come out defending their own countries’ departure from the EU on similar grounds (remember Viktor Orban’s call for a referendum on the EU refugee quotas? Imagine that, covering all sorts of topics and brandishing the threat of an « exit »). The contagion effect won’t take long to observe. As the mainstream political forces in other EU countries seem incompetent at keeping their anti-establishment opponents (left and right) at bay, political forces already enjoying a a high wave of popularity will gain a crucial push in the upcoming polls, riding on the discourse that “the EU is dying and after the UK leaves, it’s time we do the same thing”. This discourse will replicate itself in several Member States, becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy – and you thought the eurozone bailouts were already bad enough at that.

First targets: the French presidential election and the German parliamentary election, both taking place in 2017. The spillover effect of Brexit could very well lead to Marine Le Pen winning the French presidency (worst-case scenario and with it, taking France out of the eurozone or even of the EU altogether), or coming very close to it, while the German election can potentially lead to a result that will make AfD an indispensable government party, aggravating recent polls that show the CDU-SPD bloc rank under 50% of the voters’ preferences. The entire integration process will grind to a halt – not accelerate it after the least enthusiastic state leaves – and it will be rolled back on several areas, under a wave of nationalism in several Member States that will become more and more prominent and hold their capitals hostage.

An EU Member State walking out of this integration project, without a backup plan or any alternative outlined for the moment, sends the message that decades of convergence and streamlining of policies in a multitude of areas can be simply thrown out in the name of an empty and populist call for sovereignty and “taking back control” against barely identifiable enemies and despite most evidence indicating that it would not be in the interest of that member to do so. A defeat of Remain and a British departure will not just be a victory of populism, it will be the single biggest (and probably irreversible) defeat of the European Union itself.

Eventually, if Brexit happens, what will remain will not be a union of 27 Member States but perhaps one of 24, or 21…or none at all, depending on what happens in each country. Perhaps the immediate future would be easier to foresee if the Leave field had a more precise idea of what it wants for the future of the UK, but no, the sole goal is to shut the door on the EU – whatever comes next (EEA, free trade agreement with the EU, customs union, what to do with the body of EU norms that are part of British law) is not a problem anymore and if UKIP does not make significant gains from Brexit, it will be the problem of whoever runs the country after David Cameron leaves (another question, will UKIP dissolve after its main goal has been achieved? Farage’s problem, not mine). The Leave campaign sees Brexit as the end of a cycle for the UK and bases itself on the premise that by leaving the EU, everything will consistently improve – including the UK’s relations with the EU. Hard to see that happening if the EU comes out of Brexit severely harmed. Even worse, the post-Brexit EU could potentially be no more within a few years, which in extremis, could mean the UK would have to negotiate bilateral agreements with all the (former) EEA countries one by one, additionally to those it would already have to if the arguments of the Leave campaign are to be taken seriously (USA, Japan, India, Canada, etc.). I fail to see how that would make things easier for the UK, or any EU member for that matter.

Un commentaire


  1. Jacques Werner · juin 7, 2016

    Dear João,

    We have now arrived at the point where the EU is used as a universal scape-goat. It’s dispiriting. But it’s also a key moment for those of us who want Europe to succeed! We should speak up now and expose these irrational platforms of the past.