A political counter-revolution against the European Union is underway. Brexit is likely to be seen in hindsight as just the first of many tremors leading up to a larger political earthquake that will be felt all over the European continent.
Brexit could prove very dangerous for the UK. There has been a short term shock: the British economy is on the way into a recession, the pound is in free fall, banks are starting to relocate, and British politics has become a game of musical chairs as one political leader after the other exits the stage. Racism has reared its ugly head: the British police confirmed a 57 percent increase in hate crime in the week after the referendum. But the longer term outlook signals a much more fundamental change – a shrinking economic and political voice in the world.
As much as some elements of the British EU referendum campaign were idiosyncratic to the UK, Brexit was not a peculiar piece of Anglo-Saxon exceptionalism. Rather, it is a symptom and an accelerator of wider trends that are increasingly affecting all member states.
Appealing to the people
The referendum result shocked the British elite. Notwithstanding the high turnout of 72 percent – which in the run-up to the referendum had been considered a favourable portent of a “Remain” win – a majority voted to leave the European Union. The autopsy of the result concluded that Brexit was caused by a toxic mix of economic uncertainty, cultural anxiety, and political alienation among the population. This is true, but underlying it is a bigger challenge – that the EU no longer has a clear story what it is for.
The sociologist Abraham Maslow is known for having developed the idea of a hierarchy of needs. Based on this theory, the British Values Survey divided British society into three different segments: settlers, prospectors and pioneers.
These three groups each make up roughly a third of the British population. Settlers are naturally conservative, focused on safety, security and belonging. Prospectors want to maximise their wealth and seek opportunities for personal advancement. Finally, pioneers have satisfied their material needs and are interested in self-actualisation and concerned about the big picture.
Not long ago, the European Union held appeal for all three groups. For settlers, it offered peace and stability. For prospectors, the single market promised jobs and prosperity. For pioneers, it was exotic and exciting. None of these statements are true anymore. Settlers are unsettled by the change they have seen in their native towns and cities through migration. Prospectors’ prospects are darkening – they have been told that the UK is tethered to a dying EU economy and that only when all red tape has been cut will Britain be able to spread its wings and rise to new heights. And for pioneers, the EU has become a boring, bureaucratic blob, symbolised by Brussel’s grey skies, while Brexit holds the promise of exotic, new shores.
One of the biggest achievements of the “Leave” campaign has been to win without ever presenting a coherent plan of what Britain’s future outside of the EU could look like, in order to appeal to different voters. Many competing – and mutually exclusive – models were discussed, from becoming Europe’s Singapore to an “Albanian model”. Voters supported “Leave” for very different reasons. Settlers are hoping that the British exit will lead to less immigration. Prospects want Britain to secure free trade deals with China and other rising powers to become an economic powerhouse. Pioneers are searching for a new exciting identity outside of bureaucratic Europe. The large majority of them will be disappointed, independent of the results of the negotiations, and most of them don’t know it yet. Anti-European campaigns all over Europe are now adopting this tactic.
For many, the EU has become the opposite of what it once promised. Not too long ago, the EU felt that it was promoting a political revolution and that it had found a new way of structuring global politics. It was a project based on and embodying the values of the enlightenment: reason, liberalism and representative democracy. It was a revolution that advanced individual rights, international law and the pooling of sovereignty through the transformative power of enlargement, the neighbourhood policy, global institution-building and copy-cat regional integration. Europe looked ahead with confidence and the belief that it could change the world in its own image. In this spirit I published a book in 2005 on why Europe would rule the twenty-first century. I argued that the osmotic power of Europe would eventually engulf its neighbourhood, that more and more international institutions would appear, shaped in the EU’s image, and that interdependence would bring us closer together.
But rather than remaking the world in its own image, Europe has become fearful of the transformative power of its neighbours. Rather than exporting its values, we are importing chaos. Rather than a “community of fate” we have seen a breakdown of solidarity and a divided continent. The EU is shrinking rather than enlarging. Interdependence is creating rather than constraining conflict. Faced with multiple crises from Crimea to refugees, the EU has lost its global radiance.
Brexit is a prime example of the counter-revolution against everything the EU stands for. The “Leave” campaign attacked reason and education, arguing that the people had “had enough of experts”. The belief in the positive consequences of coming closer together through trade and exchanges had been abolished in favour of a return to previous – but long bygone – alleged certainties of independence.
The same is repeating itself on the continent. Parties running on these and similar platforms are in office in one third of EU member states. In others they have captured the political agenda and are forcing mainstream parties to adopt their positions. They are Eurosceptic, spurn NATO, back Putin, want closed borders and an end to free trade. The domestic permissive consensus for European integration has disappeared. Many are subject to the same political trends that shaped the result of the referendum in the UK: anger with elites, large minorities who feel politically and economically left behind, a fear of immigration, and a rise in identity politics.
From a diplomatic to a demotic Europe
The move towards referenda is particularly worrisome. All over Europe, insurgent parties are calling for referendums, trying to reproduce the British “Leave” campaign’s success: ECFR’s research shows that a further 32 EU referenda are being proposed in 18 member states. Claiming to hand power back to the people, referenda have become weapons of choice with which insurgent parties can whip up popular support for their pet issues. This is a nightmare not only for established parties, but also for democratic governance. As California’s experience with referenda has shown, the public will often vote for contradictory things – for example lower taxes and more welfare programs, or environmental protection and cheaper gas.
Even more worrisome is that referendums are always zero-sum – the winner takes all and there is no room for negotiation and compromise. But compromise and diplomacy are the very principles the EU is based on. It has a long history of de-escalating negotiations by breaking the issues down into manageable, bureaucratic questions, instead of politicising them into fundamental “all-or-nothing” debates. In the near future two ideas will be facing-off: the diplomatic EU as it had been conceived by Jean Monnet versus the demotic Europe, as represented by Britain’s leavers and Europe’s insurgents, which blows diplomatic compromises up into political battles. ECFR’s survey of insurgent parties reveals how political forces are using calls for referenda to recast politics as a fight between cosmopolitan elites and nativists.
As challenging as these trends are for states, the dynamic is exponentially worse for the EU as it overturns the Union’s very foundations. The EU is the ultimate expression of representative democracy in which European representatives are elected by national representatives. But these layers of representation on which the EU relies have created the sense that a kind of “Über-elite” is running things, far removed from ordinary citizens. It has provided nationalist parties with the perfect target for their anti-EU campaigns. When this is added to fear-mongering about issues like immigration and trade, their ability to attract frustrated, marginalised and anxious voters is strong. The ideas that the EU project incarnated for the last decades of the Cold War are no longer acting as a motor force for the integration of Europe but are becoming a target for anti-establishment forces seeking its disintegration.
The most troubling thing about the current state of the EU is not therefore Britain’s impending departure, but the fragility of the remaining 27 states, which are subject to the same trends that shaped the result of the referendum in the UK. It is possible that we will see not only the disintegration of the EU but also of its member-states.
The future of Europe
We are at the beginning of a long and uncertain process of divorce. European and British policymakers need to move quickly to contain the risks. The EU should work to keep its links with Britain alive by distinguishing between areas where all will benefit from cooperation and those where being too accommodating to the UK could fuel contagion. The single market cannot survive if countries are allowed to opt out of large sections of the acquis. But many countries have strong trade links to Britain that they want to keep alive. The EU should seek to accommodate them in ways that do not undermine the fabric of the rest of the EU.
For the UK it makes more sense to pursue an existing partnership model, instead of trying to carve out a completely new relationship, as it is unlikely that there will be appetite among the remaining member states to diverge from existing models. As every single member state has to agree on the new model, a “Norway-plus” arrangement appears most sensible.
For the EU, the solution cannot be to simply carry on as usual. This is the moment for thorough self-reflection on the future of European project.
The EU was created with a certain idea in mind. It was based on the idea that interdependence reduces conflict. By linking European means of production together – first in the form of the European coal and steel community, later in the common market and the euro – the EU hoped to bind them together so closely that war between the states of Europe would no longer be an option. This economic connectivity then created further political connectivity; a European superstructure. This idea is now being challenged in a fundamental way by both the departure of the UK and by the underlying forces of disintegration. So the question needs to be asked: what sort of Europe is worth fighting for today? How can the EU – at the same time precious and dysfunctional– be saved and continue?
Intellectuals and commentators have failed to reinvent the idea of Europe in such a way that it might inspire trust from citizens who do not have a university education, or who are not members of the cosmopolitan classes that have benefited disproportionately from European integration. The EU’s new raison d’etre has to be the mitigation of the negative effects stemming from European and global connectivity. While it is true that interdependence has helped make war unthinkable and created a lot of wealth, interdependence – whether through the euro, free movement or terrorism – has also created a lot of opposition to the EU. For too long, elites have portrayed the effects of connectivity and globalisation in exclusively positive terms, ignoring negative effects.
It is crucial that Europeans acknowledge and engage with the sources of discontent and rethink the European ideal. Rather than focussing on driving people further together, the next phase of integration has to be about making people feel safe with interdependence by working out how to protect people from its dark side. That means redistributing some of the economic benefits of free movement to communities at the sharp end. It means stronger control of external borders and cooperation against the terror threat. And it requires a more flexible kind of integration for the eurozone and migration.
While the automatic reflex may be for the EU to turn inwards, the world and its problems will not go away, and many of these issues are becoming existential for national governments. Few, if any, of today’s foreign policy challenges can be adequately addressed by member states acting on their own. It is also important to note that Brexit is likely to have changed the way partners, allies, and opponents see the EU – and not for the better.
The EU needs to avoid developing a foreign policy for a Europe that does not exist. New realities have to be taken into account. EU member states need to acknowledge that the crises have hit member-states and peoples in an asymmetric way. There is no sense in being in the same boat together, which means there is no automatic instinct to develop a common response. The answer has to lie in going back to basics and building a European response from the bottom up. Hence, the highest calling of the Brussels institutions is to defend the nation states of Europe rather than to grow their own power. The EU should be seen a first line of defence for national priorities, rather than a body that attempts to suspend them.
To rethink the idea of Europe, we need to protect what is left of the EU and stop the remaining 27 from disintegrating further. That will mean having a European idea that is wide enough and inclusive enough so that all member-states can find their role within it. We should think where groups from among the EU 27 can deepen their cooperation – preferably in several areas at the same time so that trade-offs can be found between them.
Last, a place needs to be found for Britain in European foreign policy. The UK may be outside the EU but it remains a part of Europe. How can Britain be integrated in support of a European foreign policy? This is a particularly big challenge as most EU foreign policy is about externalised domestic policy – economic sanctions, trade deals, energy, visa regimes, etc. – which get accepted by the foreign affairs council where the UK will not be represented once it leaves the Union. A type of “associate membership” could be an alternative, following examples such as NATO associated membership of Sweden or Finland.
The new Europe urgently needs to appeal to all parts of the population if it wants to remain relevant. Admitting the existence of the dark side of globalisation and interdependence and acting in a way that protects the EU’s citizens against it could be a first important step.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.