The Brexit series finally “ends”, leaving behind self-inflicted traumas and new paths to be carved
An ending and a new beginning. This is the most accurate description that fits both for the UK and the EU regarding the ongoing situation between them. Challenges and opportunities can be seen on a horizon that reflects images of the past.
Brexit took the world by storm back in 2016. Alongside Donald Trump’s election, it is going to be commemorated in history as the biggest slap the western liberal order has ever experienced from the inside. Anti-globalization and nationalism began to rise in order to present an alternative towards an ever-evolving world. The referendum mania that David Cameron proudly underwent, after two successive battles in electoral reforms and Scottish independence, will also be remembered as a grand political arrogance. Then, Theresa May came to conduct the elections that will deepen the British crisis even more. The story from this point is pretty much known -and complex-. Now, the determination of Boris Johnson to “get the Brexit done” has produced some results. This has nothing to do of course with Nigel Farage waving flags for the last time in the European Parliament, neither with the choir of the “Auld Lang Syne”.
What lies ahead now is an 11-month period of negotiation between London and Brussels regarding a future relationship. Ironically for the Brexiters, this period includes UK’s compliance with the current status quo rules that they resent so much. This transition period has to resolve some critical issues that regulate trade, security, cooperation, energy, health and fishing. Nobody can likely tell with certainty if this period will be adequate to complete its mission. But it is quite sure that the UK and the EU will have to plan the future without entanglements that promote instability between the two parties. Nevertheless, the analysis that has been presented so far regarding the transition period can be rather ambiguous: On one hand, markets’ safety has been ensured by the “soft Brexit” provisions that regularize the environment. On the other hand, we have worries regarding the European bureaucracy and the British political will.
The holistic Brexit impact though will be visible as a product of these negotiations. For the time being, the British toxicity of the past 4 years has produced negative economic impacts, as well as an inability for the UK to prioritize any other agenda over Brexit. In the future, it is quite difficult to imagine a tariff war between Britain and Europe after leaving the single market, although not impossible if regulation efforts fail miserably. Building a new partnership will influence British foreign policy as a whole and that’s why because the UK will have to find a balance and its new role between Great Power competition and the EU. A matter that must not be overlooked also is the secessionist sentiments of Scotland and Northern Ireland that grew in the UK after the Brexit vote. Political correlations within Britain have somewhat rebranded from a different perspective, much like what has been done in Europe the previous decade.
Without a doubt, Brexit triggered a conversation regarding the future of EU integration. Will the EU-27 accelerate this process after the UK leaves the Union? The answer is much more complicated than a simple “yes” or “no”. Brexit damaged the image of the EU more than anything in the past. And it cannot be ignored that the EU loses a strong military and nuclear power, as well as an economy that equals 18 or 19 EU member-states. Britain was always approached as an “awkward partner” that viewed the EU as an economic partnership rather than a political project. Therefore, London halted many integration aspects that Brussels promoted, especially in the fields of security and social policy. On the other hand, although the UK never took part, British interests promoted a stable Eurozone to gain its fair share from the single market. But common practices can be traced in all EU member-states more or less.
Let’s not forget that French and German visions for EU integration lie within strategic interests and not ideological ones. Both countries want to exercise supervision, either through “Europe qui protège” or “Eurozone first”. The multi-speed Europe is trying to be built when, at the same time, the Franco-German axis has not secured its sustainability regarding leadership. This situation is evolving into void and impractical compromises that halt integration as much as -if not more- the UK did in the past. And of course, the “Christian Europe” of Visegrad, Italy and Austria is lurking in the shadows. So, at the end of the day, Brexit may have pushed these efforts forward but there is no clear path to be followed. Member-states will continue to pursue their interests the way Britain did within the EU, valuing their national goals above anything else. The momentum that has been glorified, especially after Macron’s election, is gone for the time being.
The Brexit era, both for the UK and the EU, is concluding. The final chapter of this Odyssey has left an unprecedented bitterness, as a 47 years journey is also concluding. But the fate of both entities will always be intertwined as the long unfolded history suggests.