In the brouhaha following the United Kingdom’s historical vote to leave the EU, the two worst risks confronting Europe are complacency and obsession with the UK.
Spectators should be jolted out of their complacency by the fact that most European stock-markets fell more than the FTSE in the first day of trading after Brexit. What do the markets know that pundits perhaps do not understand? That a UK styled according to its own designs has a fair chance of pulling back from the brink, and even turning into the “global UK” that some pro-Leavers were advocating. If that’s the case, firstly it will be because it won’t suffer the problem of consensus-building that the EU, and even the eurozone have as unfinished integration projects. Second, it will be because the UK will have two clear priorities – it will by its very nature remain interested in defence strategies and alliances, and in preserving some of the attraction of the city of London. The last requires an immediate top class strategy, which the British Treasury is equipped to deliver. All the while there is still no eurozone treasury. Let’s be clear about it – British diplomacy, finance and attractiveness remain huge assets, inside or outside the EU.
Which brings us to the number one priority for Europeans – not to obsess with the UK’s words and deeds, but to get our own house in order. Facing the refugee crisis and controlling our external borders is the only antidote to “populism”, and empowering a forward looking strategy with our key partners is crucial to keeping the EU together. What happens with the UK after Brexit – who moves first and on what terms the future is built – should be the Britain’s own obsession, and not ours. It would be extraordinary if London, after decades of favouring the widening of Europe at the expense of deepening, and a year of blackmailing Europeans on new terms to remain, was now able to dominate the European political scene with its own terms of departure – and, worse, the terms of once more joining and reaping some of the benefits of the European Union.
This is not to say that we should turn our backs on the UK, but it is now up to them to depart in a dignified way, avoiding rear guard sabotage of the Union, and to persuade us that there are terms for cooperation that would be to our advantage. They do the asking, we do the vetting.
One example will suffice from this writer’s field of expertise. In the recent months, David Cameron blocked any reform of European defence trade instruments within the Foreign Affairs Council. This reform was made necessary by the prospect of China becoming a fully fledged, no holds barred, member of the World Trade Organization free trade community. This was in spite of the steelworker drama brought about in the UK by Chinese steel dumping. That’s how much the City has come to dominate the UK’s external policies, and Brexit will increase the temptation to become the world’s major off-shore centre, a financial emirate competing with Singapore.
Coincidentally, the European Union has just come out with its most realist and practical policy paper on China ever adopted – at last, a policy designed from and for the European interest, and loudly requesting unity from member states.
Implementing such a policy will require a deeper union, and more means at the disposal of the EU. The answer to the Brexit vote and to Euroscepticism is not to walk back on the trail of history, dismantling part of the European project. True, we could do without some of the many rules invented by Eurocrats. Let’s remember Brussels was led to these excesses because member states often denied the EU the real sovereign power that they wanted to keep for themselves. It is largely European politicians who have not lived up to the European ambition.
Now it is make or break time for Europe. Friends and competitors abroad are watching us. Putin is on the record for predicting that the EU, like all unions, will end one day. China has a golden opportunity to divide and rule between the UK and EU. Accelerating European construction in key areas – budget and treasury, border control, external strategy – is the way out of the perilous situation we are in.
It was when Americans decided to leave the United Kingdom and were faced with war that they adopted, under the guidance of Alexander Hamilton, the key features of a federal government, including currency, budget and national debt management. We are of course not at war with the UK, whose capacity for defence remains a key asset. But if we underestimate the potential for competition from a global UK, and fall back on our usual divisions and political bickering, we will indeed validate the instinct of those who judged that sailing alone was safer than staying with a rudderless armada.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.