Brexit negotiations mean uncertainty not just for the UK but for the countries it leads behind in the EU, nowhere is this truer than on the issue of whether Brexit will lead to greater unity of disunity within the Union.
In the classic British satirical comedy Yes Minister the civil servant Sir Humphry explains to the bumbling Minister Hacker the reasoning for Britain joining the EU was a cynical way for Britain to maintain power and influence by ensuring disunity within the European project.
In reality, however, Britain’s history and relationship with the EU has, of course, been a little more complicated and complex than this; in many ways Britain’s position within the EU as a perceived obstacle to unity and greater convergence has ensured that divergent views are expressed and opposing ideologies met with compromise. The UK has historically encouraged a much more liberal approach to areas of trade and the social contract – a key example being its opt-out form the Schengen Visa system – often in stark opposition to the other central powerful EU state such as France and German.
Yet now that the UK is leaving a starkly different EU may emerge. Once the UK leaves the EU there will be a dramatic shift in the balance of power within the EU. The UK was one of the EU’s most influential players and alongside France and Germany was regarded as an economic and political pillar. Its strength and position, alongside its ambivalence to the grander EU project, allowed it more, than any other country, to extract the most exemptions and opt-outs, such as membership of the Euro and Schengen.
So with its departure, will the EU move to greater convergence after Brexit? This is surely the hope and wishes of Germany and now France (with one of its most pro-European presidents); both of which are pursuing greater cooperation and convergence, putting aside superficial differences in place of a vision for the post-Brexit EU.
Historically France and Germany have always been the drivers of the post-war Europe project, whilst British positions have more often than not been the brakes on European unity. This may be due to the fact that Britain only joined in 1973, 16 years after the Treaty of Rome, due mainly to French opposition.
However, Britain’s departure will also lay bare the stark and growing differences within the EU project, especially between the core and peripheral countries, in both the economic and political realm. Economically, Greece is still struggling; following near economic collapse and a number of issues need to be resolved in the country to ensure the stability of Greece and the EU such as Greece’s debt sustainability and management.
Furthermore, whilst the EU project has predominantly been an economic project, there is a clear political component to the EU, and this will no doubt be one its greatest tests post-Brexit. There is a growing collection of central and eastern European states which in many ways are avowedly pro-EU according to public sentiment but, in many ways, have deeply nationalist governments. Leaders such as Hungary’s Viktor Orban have espoused the idea of “illiberal democracies” and seek political inspiration from international figures such as President Putin in Russia. Poland and the Czech Republic, to name two, also appear to seek similar political paths as Hungary.
How the EU deals with the rise of 21st century neo-nationalism will be one of its ultimate tests, especially for its future unity. This may be where Brexit will leave its lasting legacy. If countries with strong neo-nationalist forces, like Hungary, see Britain not only managing but thriving outside the EU, it may provide the ammunition populists like Viktor Orban need to argue for a Hungary outside the EU. Once the UK leaves, the EU will have to confront fundamental issues that for various reasons have been avoided. Its survival depends on reconciling in some cases paradoxical differences. Time will tell if the UK outside will be a unifier for the rest of Europe or a beacon for European disillusions.
When Britain leaves the EU, there will be great challenges facing those its leaves behind. Ensuring unity – or even seeking greater convergence – for the remaining EU member states will have to face a number of political and economic barriers in a markedly changed Union.
David Lee has a Masters in Diplomatic Studies and is a Policy Assistant at a national think tank. He lives in London.