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Hans Vollaard

March 23rd, 2020

One down, many to go? European disintegration after Brexit

7 comments | 5 shares

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Hans Vollaard

March 23rd, 2020

One down, many to go? European disintegration after Brexit

7 comments | 5 shares

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Since January 2020, the UK has ceased to be a member of the EU. For the first time, an entire country has voluntarily left the bloc. Negotiations have started on the relationship between the UK and the EU after the current transitional period. But what about the current EU member states? Will some of them follow the British example? Hans Vollaard (Utrecht University) explains.

In June 2016, a majority of the eligible population in Britain voted in favour of leaving the EU. In the campaign, the desire to regain control over borders, laws and migration was an important motive. In particular, curtailment of migration was seen as an advantage of Brexit.

Without full participation in the Schengen area for free travel and in the monetary union, the exit didn’t seem that complicated. Moreover, can’t Great Britain perfectly stand on its own feet, economically and politically, many had asked? After all, the country still has a seat in the UN Security Council, worldwide ties with former colonies, an army with nuclear weapons, and a large financial sector. Also, the attitudes of the British towards the EU had never been all too favourable. The idea that the EU is a rather undemocratic bureaucracy made departure a logical way to express dissatisfaction with the EU.

However, leaving has been more difficult for the UK than expected, or suggested. Years of political tensions have been accompanied by uncertainty about the economic prospects and the rules applicable after the transitional period ends. These problems may not strengthen the desire in other EU member states to voluntarily withdraw their countries from the union. Nevertheless, Brexit will remain the exception even without those problems. There is no majority in any other member state in government, parliament or public opinion for a full exit from the EU.

How can that be? It is definitely not the case that dissatisfaction about the EU has been less elsewhere than in the UK. On the contrary, more Brits than Czechs, Italians, Greeks and Slovaks perceive EU membership as a good thing today. Stronger feelings for the EU outside the UK cannot explain limited support for an exit from the EU, however. In Czechia, Greece, Croatia, and Cyprus there is even less attachment to the EU than in the UK. Moreover, Greeks, Slovenians, Czechs, Latvians, Italians, Cypriots, Bulgarians, Hungarians, Austrians are more convinced than the British that their country’s interests are not taken into account in the EU.

The fact that there is no majority support for a full departure from the EU anywhere else is mainly due to its costs. Member States that are part of Schengen and the euro should have to introduce new border surveillance and a new currency if they were to leave. That is rather expensive. Most importantly, perspectives outside the union are not very attractive. However miserable the Greeks may find it staying in the EU, a majority considers life outside the EU even less appealing. Unlike in the UK, there is no strong belief anywhere in the EU that a country is better off outside the EU. There is no alternative international organization to provide peace and prosperity of the same quality as the EU. Additionally, many citizens, for instance in Italy, don’t think that their country has the capacity to face the political challenges of today outside the EU. The lack of a proper alternative would thus keep current members inside the EU, however, displeased they maybe be about the current state of affairs.

Even though there may not be other instances of European disintegration like Brexit, dissatisfaction may lead to other forms of disintegration. Not by countries leaving the EU entirely, but only partially. These partial exits involve member states not complying with the EU rules, for instance with respect to public finances in the Eurozone (Italy), or the Schengen rules, many member states have introduced “temporary” national border surveillance since the migration crisis of 2015. Another partial exit is the desire to pay less money to ‘Brussels’, such as expressed by the so-called Hanseatic group of EU member states led by the Netherlands. Disintegration can also occur involuntarily, when one member state wants to exclude another member state, such as the calls to push Greece out of the euro or the Schengen area.

These partial forms of disintegration undermine the functioning of the EU. Its rules are less respected, and it gets fewer resources to function properly. In such a scenario, the EU would gradually ‘bleed to death’. However, such a gradual process of dissolution also provides the EU with time to address causes of dissatisfaction, such as the democratic deficit, and luke-warm feelings for the integration project. The EU can do this because there are also influential member states such as Germany in which the dissatisfaction in the EU is not so widespread, and attachment to the EU and a sense of democratic purpose for the EU are relatively prevalent. Those member states, therefore, want to stay and make deals for their own and European interests. In this way they allow the EU to keep going. As long as there is no good alternative outside the EU, dissatisfied member states will continue to participate, even if half-heartedly. The European Union will muddle through.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor the LSE. Image: Public Domain.

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About the author

Hans Vollaard

Hans Vollaard is Lecturer in Dutch and European Politics at Utrecht University, the Netherlands. He has recently published on European disintegration, the Netherlands in the EU, and local democracy. He is the author of European Disintegration: A Search for Explanations.

Posted In: European politics | Featured | Foreign policy | UK politics

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