While the scheduled date of Brexit is fast approaching, the British public debate, which is focused on the current state of the exit negotiations and the outlooks for the future relationship, mainly represents the UK’s point of view. This is why the LSE European Institute and the LSE School of Public Policy jointly hosted a panel event aimed at bringing together experts exploring Brexit from the vantage point of its impact on the EU. In this blog, Corrado Macchiarelli (Brunel University London/LSE) and Roch Dunin-Wąsowicz (UCL/LSE) give an account of the discussion that took place on 13 November at the LSE.
While the EU is currently experiencing other political upheavals (e.g. Italy’s budget standoff with the Commission), Brexit alone raises existential questions about the European project. It raises questions about the value of membership and of sovereignty pooling, about its benefits and costs and their distribution, as well as the viability of an integration-project able to at least sustain the net benefits present since the creation of the single market. Ironically, one of the few concrete benefits of the Brexit debate is that it has nurtured new and thought-provoking discussions in Europe addressing critical questions that have not been adequately investigated before.
For a few years now, one can observe several centrifugal (Eurosceptic) forces unleashing in some EU member states. Hence, it would be wrong to dismiss the UK’s decision to leave the EU as an isolated incident, which the rest of the EU has nothing to do with. A loss of confidence in the European institutions and the European project as a whole – of which Brexit is a symptom and certainly not the cause – is something all politicians and policymakers should want to avoid, particularly in light of the European elections next year. The EU will need to structure its discussions in such a way so that the UK’s actual withdrawal, whenever it will be – in March 2019 or possibly later – does not create a precedent which risks reinforcing existing scepticism and disenchantment. We should understand not only ‘what went wrong’ but also chiefly ‘what’s next?’. We can only achieve this understanding through the study of both British and EU27 perspectives on the future of the European project. It is also very much in the UK’s interest to understand what kind of new European ‘order’ Brexit will create. This was the aim of the Europe Beyond Brexit: the Europeans’ perspective panel, held at the London School of Economics on 13 November 2018.
The event gathered scholars and experts on European politics and political economy, but also European citizens, to reflect on what Brexit means for the future of the EU and why the union has reached such a political impasse. The discussion opened with the remarks of Professor Robert Klemmensen (Syddansk Universitet, Denmark and LSE European Institute), who noted that the very peaceful nature of a political process such as Brexit is a testimony to the endurance of Europe’s post-WII peace process – in that sense, the European idea has already triumphed. He focused his talk on the relationship between small and big states within the EU and what will happen after Brexit, suggesting how the UK’s exit would increase the risk of a two-speed EU. Denmark, who had been voting with the UK 80% of the time in the European Council, is losing a strong ally, and it is unlikely to find new ones to replace it among the countries currently outside of the eurozone, he remarked.
Dr Corrado Macchiarelli (Brunel University London and LSE European Institute) continued by saying that we are progressively shifting to “bottom-up” approaches to democracy (populism) in the face of the unequal redistribution of the gains of globalisation. Hence the most pertinent question is how can a technocratic and complex EU operate successfully when “bottom-up” populist forces in the Member State increasingly seek to assert their sovereignty? Consequently, Brexit will make the discussions of EU’s legitimacy even more relevant than ever, especially considering that there are deep flaws in the EU decision-making process. Right now, as an entity sui generis the EU is stuck in the middle between an international organisation and a nation state, he concluded.
Subsequently, Shahin Vallee (euro50 and LSE European Institute) underlined that as of today Brexit is indeed irreversible. Right now the UK and EU27 negotiators are rushing against time, he added. However, he maintained that the fact that the UK is leaving the union in 2019 doesn’t mean it may not be able to come back to a reformed EU later on. He maintained that a new chapter in the EU’s institutional setup is in the making, brought about by the Brexit negotiations but also by the upcoming European elections in May – all these debates are touching on the constitutional nature of the EU, he underlined. The future of the EU must entail fostering deep euro-area integration and doing away with the “permissive consensus” mode of decision making, which is the reasons for the union’s current executive deficit, he said.
Finally, Charlotte Ruhe (EBRD) explained the UK’s historical role in Europe’s economic integration, especially after 1991 when the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development began transforming former Communist counties in “sustainable market-oriented economies”, thereby bringing them into the heart of Europe and the EU. She maintained that while Brexit has the capacity to create larger trade linkages across the globe for the UK, there are many countries, especially in the Western Balkans, that still dream of EU accession, with Prime Minister Theresa May having most recently hosted the WB Prime Ministers in London in July as part of the Berlin Process. In that sense, Brexit is also a signal for the EU to do some soul-searching with regard to the very philosophy of EU enlargement – which, according to her, should not lose momentum.
There were many issues the panel differed on, however, there was a consensus regarding certain core diagnoses of the state of the European Union in the heyday of Brexit. All panellists agreed that as long as the interests of Member States ultimately take precedence over EU-wide interests in all policy areas there will be friction in the decision-making process – what we need is a new institutional settlement in EU, which should be easier to achieve without the UK putting the spanner in the works of Brussels. Likewise, everyone present identified that while the peoples of Europe do not connect with the EU, and the enduring peace on the continent (which Brexit has not managed to overturn) is widely taken for granted by most Europeans. At the same time, the speakers pointed that Europeanization of the public debate (in part due to Brexit, and the Euro crisis) is actually taking place, and while a fully-fledged European demos is still in the making, it is indeed growing. Lastly, the panel reminded the audience that there are areas where European democracy benefits EU citizens since it is the European Parliament we have to thank for scrapping roaming charges across the continent.
This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of LSE Brexit, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.
Dr Corrado Macchiarelli (@CorradoMacchia1) is a Lecturer in Economics and Finance at Brunel University London. He is also a Visiting Research Fellow in European Political Economy at the London School of Economics (LSE), and a part-time Lecturer in Economics at New York University’s (NYU) Stern School of Business in London.
Dr Roch Dunin-Wąsowicz (@RochDW) is a Fellow at the Department of Social Science, UCL Institute of Education; Managing Editor of LSE Brexit and co-investigator at the Generation Brexit project at the LSE European Institute.