A Necessary Divorce?
by Johan Van De Ven
David Cameron’s most dangerous political gamble has run its course. Returned to office just over a year ago with a mandate to hold a referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership in the European Union, he succeeded in the most basic goal of putting Britain’s place in Europe to a vote. But that is meagre solace for a Prime Minister who has failed in each of his secondary objectives: unite a Conservative Party bitterly divided over the European question, maintain the integrity of the United Kingdom, and preserve his country’s place in the European Union. Yet while the Prime Minister announced his resignation with the British Pound at its lowest rate against the Dollar since 1985, more economic hurt is on the way, and the UK faces the real threat of Scottish and Northern Irish departures, history may eventually look upon Britain’s impending departure from the EU as a necessary divorce: necessary for Britain to address serious domestic divisions, necessary for the remaining EU member states to pursue systemic reform, and necessary for Westminster and Brussels to recalibrate the terms of their relationship.
Firstly, Europhobia has long cast a shadow over British politics. Stemming from the UK’s geographic and linguistic separation from continental Europe, this Europhobia contributed to Westminster’s refusal to join the European Coal and Steel Community – the institution that launched the process of European integration in 1950. While the UK joined the European Economic Community in 1973, a number of factors quickly poisoned the growing relationship between Britain and Europe. First was the then Labour government’s 1974 decision to call a referendum on continued membership. This was followed by Britain’s continued pursuit of exemptions from integrationist initiatives such as the Schengen borderless area, the Eurozone economic and monetary union, and the European Charter on Fundamental Rights. The ceaseless demand for special treatment by successive British governments was underlined by Cameron’s February 2016 attempt to renegotiate the terms of British membership of the EU. A divorce could grant both sides the space needed to reconsider the value of the shared relationship.
A British divorce from the EU may also allow the remaining member-states to address systemic issues. With the dust of the referendum still settling, there are a plethora of proposals on how internal reforms may take shape. The unlikely pair of controversial Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Pope Francis have both called for a decelerated approach to the core principle of an “ever closer union.” Speaking to reporters, the Pope advocated for the EU to “rediscover the strength at its roots, a creativity and a healthy disunity, of giving more independence and more freedom to the countries of the union.”
Such a reduction in the intensity of integration could promote stability, but British economist Andrew Lilico argues that Britain’s departure will open the door to reforms needed to stabilize the Eurozone. “There will be enormous pressure on other countries to say when they will be joining [the Euro]. Countries that refuse to join will get rolled together with Norway (which isn’t in the single market but has a free trade agreement with the EU). Then the Eurozone can take full control of the EU’s institutions and be able to function properly to make it work as a currency union,” he suggests. Without British obstructionism, consensus can develop around currently-intractable issues such as the EU’s ideological direction and the Eurozone’s recovery from stagnation. Britain’s divorce from the EU may spell a healthier future for the continent as a whole.
Post-Brexit politics in Britain and Brussels is marked by indecision and division. In Britain, nobody wants to take the onerous responsibility of triggering Article 50 to formally exit the EU, while both the Conservative Party and likely the Labour Party face bitter leadership elections in the coming months. In Brussels, a feud is building between the European Council and the European Commission to claim the mandate to negotiate Britain’s exit from the Union. Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has led calls for the UK to begin withdrawal proceedings immediately, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Dutch PM Mark Rutte insist that Britain first needs time to regain some stability before negotiations can commence. Once they get underway, Merkel warns there will be no “cherry picking”: either Britain will accept free movement in exchange for access to the single market, or it will have neither. But first the dust must settle, and divorce may be necessary to the bring stability to the political landscape in both Westminster and Brussels.
The divorce of Britain from the EU may ultimately establish the conditions for the European Union to address its most destabilising flaws, and may not lead to substantive change for Britain’s relationship with Europe. But an immense and unnecessary risk was taken and has already borne serious effects: the Cable exchange rate is at its lowest since 1985, the United Kingdom faces a real threat of Scotland pursuing a renewed independence referendum, and society has been broken in two. Already 4 million people have signed a petition calling for a second referendum and approximately 50,000 people protested against Britain’s departure from the EU at a rally in London on July 2nd. Police are investigating anti-Polish hate crimes committed in Cambridgeshire. Beyond the shores of Great Britain, there is a serious risk of contagion. This divorce has been a long time coming, and the ultimate consequences may be more semantic than systemic, but for now it is very, very messy.
Image "Guest host Representative Al Baldasaro is discussing last week's Brexit. Tune in LIVE at http://ift.tt/1NtUC1A" Courtesy Rich Girard / CC BY-SA 2.0
About the Author
Johan van de Ven is a MALD Candidate at the Fletcher School, where he focuses on Europe-China relations, political economy and public international law. Currently interning at the European Council on Foreign Relations, his research looks at state capitalism in different sectors of the Chinese economy. Prior to joining Fletcher, Johan worked as a policy researcher and teacher in China. He holds a B.A. in Chinese Studies from Oxford University.