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Brexit and the Future of the European Union

Brexit fatigue in the UK is real, even if it has come to be somewhat overshadowed by COVID-19 fatigue. By now, most people, if they can help it, are happy to not to have to talk about Brexit anymore. Remainers have been through their various stages of grief from denial to acceptance. It also looks like Boris Johnson has delivered what he promised. The symbolic importance of ‘getting Brexit done’ is not to be underestimated, at least in terms of giving people the license to finally move on. But unavoidably, the looming issue of ‘what next?’ is still there. Now that the UK has left the EU, it needs to show that leaving had a purpose. And the current Prime Minister certainly has the credibility (which the previous one arguably lacked) to define what Brexit really means.


The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, published on 16 March 2021 goes some way towards explaining what Global Britain wants to accomplish. It is an aspirational document, reflection of an enterprising, not an isolationist mindset. Britain is once more going to rule the waves (and the radio waves), embarking on new adventures in the Indo-Pacific, in the cyberspace, and even in the actual space. The fear of the UK’s allies is that it is spreading its admittedly limited capabilities too thin, instead of focusing what’s essential and close at hand. But the apparent bravado has at least put a more positive spin on the Brexit narrative, something that has been hardly achieved by Boris Johnson’s last-minute Brexit deal, wrought with difficulties and already inviting accusations that the UK has broken international law.


From the EU’s perspective, the situation is and remains unprecedented: no member state has ever left before. From both a political and an academic point of view, Brexit calls into question the neo-functionalist logic of ever-closer union, steered by the increasing demand for collective problem-solving and the naturally rising costs of non-integration. The ultimate blame for Brexit is perhaps yet to be attributed, but British exceptionalism and its traditionally transactionalist view of European integration remains a strong candidate, as does the complacency of the EU itself. However, Brexit also feels perhaps less special than it should. Right now, it is but one more item on EU’s long agenda of trouble to be dealt with, which includes the changing transatlantic relationship – Trump or no Trump – the new foreign political assertiveness of China, and the continuing Russian meddling in the internal affairs of other countries. All these issues converge in creating demand for fresh ideas and new solutions.


One of the outcomes of recent European soul-searching has been the idea of two-speed Europe: an EU split into a more tightly integrated core and a less integrated periphery. This would not be entirely new. For a while, there has been a growth in differentiation between the member states, including what are effectively different categories of full membership. The monetary union (Eurozone) only includes 19 member states out of 27. A more permanent two-speed set-up, however, would amount to acceptance of some of the Brexiteer logic, which always included an appetite for à la carte solutions. Adopted by the EU, it would also force its smaller Eurosceptic members to make some uncomfortable choices. Integrate more, and you can sit around the big table with the big member states. Opt out, and you can move over to your own corner of lesser significance.


The idea of European Strategic Autonomy (ESA) is another line of thought that has emerged from recent setbacks, this time in response to American demands for more European burden-sharing. The unfortunate fact is that the EU ill-suited for being the convenor of European security. It does have a high degree of ‘actorness’ in international affairs, and it has a seat in many international organisations. However, while an economic giant, it is a security dwarf. Its activities in the latter field have been largely limited to ‘soft security’: support for multilateralism, international institutions, international law and incentives provided through development aid or perspectives of accession. This has not been enough to lend it enough credibility as a security actor and give it a seat in the UN Security Council. The Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), while it does exist, is relatively ineffective, as its decision-making process requires unanimity on part of the member states. This makes any realisation of ESA difficult, and European political elites generally fail to think outside the box of the transatlantic framework – and probably with a good reason. While the idea’s main proponent, the French President Emmanuel Macron has made some impressive rhetorical overtures, there is still no concrete roadmap of how ESA might be realised, or what it even means apart of some form of reduced dependence on US leadership.


The discussions of both two-speed Europe and ESA are easily interpreted as a form of weakness. A narrative of weakness, however, is something that the EU can hardly afford, even if there is seemingly new supporting evidence available every day, from Russia’s rebuke of High Representative Josep Borrell in Moscow, to the ongoing mismanagement of the vaccines roll-out. Instead, what the EU desperately needs is a success story: a way of projecting its power and proving its utility without appearing a diminished figure. After all, there are reasons to believe that at least as far as Brexit is concerned, the damage has been limited – any domino effect failed to materialise, and, given the uninviting British example, the costs and trade-offs of leaving have been made abundantly clear all around Europe. At the same time, it is also clear the attractiveness of the bloc has recently taken a beating. This is nowhere more evident than in the fact that enlargement policy has been put on hold. The last new member state to join the EU was Croatia in 2013. The rest of the Western Balkan accessions have stalled. Turkey is still a candidate, as it has been since 1987. The EU’s Eastern neighbourhood faces fragmentation since the beginning of Russian aggression against Ukraine.


In fact, there is still something that the EU seems to be genuinely good at: international trade deals. Its Comprehensive Agreement on Investment with China, concluded at the end of 2020, is just one example. In recent years, there have been trade and economic partnership agreements also with Canada (2017), with Japan (2018) and, of course, with the UK (2020). Negotiations are ongoing with Mexico, Mercosur, New Zealand and Australia. No longer primarily a territorially contained club pursuing economic integration and deep institutionalisation or acting as a ‘shield against globalisation’ for its member states, the EU has been turning into a global player focusing on the promotion of global interconnectedness, competitiveness and anti-protectionism. Its most dynamic developments now involve its external dimension, with success found in global outreach, not in reducing the remaining intraregional barriers.


Such emerging preference for broader, albeit less structured, interactions with the rest of the world instead of deeper vertical and horizontal integration in immediate regional neighbourhood feels rather familiar. The liberal strand of pro-Brexit thought, which has now been made central to British foreign and defence policy, reflects essentially the same turn away from regionalism and towards multilateralism. The EU, regretting the loss of one of its most important member states, and the UK, liberated from the shackles of its EU membership, are both going down the same path. Furthermore, it seems probable that in the long run and further afield, they will meet again as friends rather than competitors. As both well know, it is a cold world out there, and their shared preference for a rules-based liberal order is increasingly rare. Wounded pride heals over time, and pragmatism is more likely than not to bring them together again. Whatever exact form the UK-EU relationship is going to take in the future, the final word probably hasn’t been said on it yet.


Written by Dr. Mart Kuldkepp


Dr. Mart Kuldkepp is an Associate Professor of Scandinavian History and Politics at the Department of Scandinavian Studies/European and International Social and Political Studies at University College London (UCL).