Britain will take years to recover from Brexit. Henry VIII’s first Brexit, following his 1534 schism with the Roman Catholic Church, was not fully resolved until the Glorious Revolution of 1689 and a civil war, plus the Union of Crowns between England and Scotland later. What are the lessons of Brexit for Europe? There are four sets of lessons: strategic, political, legal and popular.
The strategic lessons are clear. The EU and its member-states have inflicted a crushing defeat on Britain and its people akin to victory in a war. Bust up and break-up is what happens to defeated powers. London is already behaving like a defeated power with its political elite fast descending into what will likely be a protracted squabble over who lost Brexit and a prolonged struggle now to keep the UK together. Other Europeans need the British to engage seriously in the defence of Europe thus they are all going to have to pretend very hard that they have inflicted no such defeat on Britain.
The political lessons are also clear. Not even a leading world power has managed to depart the EU on anything likes its own terms. It is now clear that the EU crossed the Rubicon some time ago between free association of democracies and some form of hybrid confederation organised around Brussels and Berlin. Consequently, European nation-states are no longer like nation-states elsewhere, but ‘member-states’ with sovereignty severely-constrained and little room for strategic and political manoeuvre. The flip-side is that Brexit has also shown that with the backing of Brussels tiny member-states, such as tiny Ireland, can humiliate its much larger and more powerful British neighbour.
Then there are the legal lessons. Brexit has also revealed how deeply integrated all European polities and economies have become since Britain joined the then European Economic Community on 1973. Untangling Britain from the whole body of treaty obligations and acquis will take many years.
A divided European elite
Brexit also reveals the extent to which elites across Europe have themselves divided into two distinct groups. One group sees itself as a Europhile vanguard which, even if they nominally serve a nation-state, is in fact driving the shift from nation-state to member-state. One reason why Britain has been unable to deploy any of its considerable negotiating levers is that those in London responsible for talks with the European Commission are part of this group and do not believe in Brexit. Then, there is a ‘nativist’ elite, exemplified by Viktor Orban in Hungary, who paint the Brussels elite as a distant and uncaring adversary and the EU itself as an overbearing hegemon trying to crush the nation-state, its culture, its identity and its governance. An elite, the nativists suggests, who are the post-patriotic winners of globalism and thus impervious to concerns of ‘ordinary’ citizens about the local consequences of, say, mass immigration that such elites in their gilded Brussels ivory towers do not have to live with.
All of these tensions play out at the popular level. The British population appears to be deeply split. On the one hand, there is a metropolitan, often younger population who see ‘Europe’ as their natural home and who have been educated away from patriotism. For them the EU represents the future. On the other hand, there is an ageing, often more provincial and rural population, the identity of whom is firmly embedded in patriotism, Queen and country. For them, the EU is a threat, a possible dictator little different from past Continental strong men, even if they are wrapped in the mantle of the EU. For many of this latter group not far behind Brussels they see Germany, the real puppet-master and Britain’s old foe. This all-too neat divide in British society is probably more complicated than commentators would like it to appear. Whatever happens now to Brexit millions of Britons will now hate the EU and see it as the enemy, and its proponents as the enemy within.
What to do?
The truth, as ever, is somewhat more nuanced. EU institutions are fragile precisely because the Brexit divide in Britain is replicated in many member-states and most notably in those Western European states which pay the most into the Union’s budget. The dilemma faced by Europe’s leaders is that to strengthen EU institutions, the most pressing of which is the Euro, deeper political and economic union is needed. However, as the likely low turnout across Europe in May’s elections to the European Parliament will attest, there is little public appetite for more elite Europe. Recent polls might have shown an increase in the popularity of the EU but that is in part due to the incompetence of the British and their Hotel California Brexit – they can check out any time they like, but they will never leave. The real test for the EU will come when the next recession comes, as it will, and national governments again use the Union as a scapegoat for many of their own failings.
What is clear is that for the moment the idea of ‘ever closer union’ must be put on hold. The 2009 Treaty of Lisbon was a treaty too far. Powers need to be repatriated to the member-states because they remain the repositories of real democratic legitimacy in Europe. As for Brussels, it must urgently consider how to convince far more ordinary Europeans that the EU is their EU not some elite gravy train. Brussels could begin that process by reforming itself. First, it needs to demonstrate clearly how the lives of ordinary Europeans are made better by the EU, as they are. Second, Brussels needs to make itself far less of an elite. There are still far too many ‘sons of’, daughters of’ ‘nephews and nieces of’ amongst senior EU personnel.
As for Britain, it will take years to recover from Brexit, for trust to return to its relationships with other Europeans, and for the British people to any longer believe that their vote matters.