Since the end of June 2016, Europe has changed. Citizens of the United Kingdom have called for a reviewed arrangement with the European Union. Only in the course of the next few years will we see whether the potential hidden in this transformation was properly exploited for the good of both the UK and Europe.
But now it is high time for all thoughtful European politicians to find answers to some key questions: how does the UK referendum outcome redefine the geopolitical balance in Europe? How does Brexit affect security and trade? And, last but not least, how will the integration process further develop?
Not only the referendum outcome, but the campaign itself too, stirred up some stagnant muddy waters of European discourse. A few taboos were broken and a number of topics were raised which have previously not been discussed enough: do we really need so many regulations? Is the cost-benefit ratio resulting from the current shape of the European Union still acceptable? How much is the European redistributive machinery actually worth?
The great European success story itself was questioned too. Ten years ago, Europe was considered the strongest economy in the world, destined to welcome more and more new members, and eventually become the biggest, strongest and most successful player on the global scene. Today the story is very different. More and more frequently we hear: let’s at least defend what we have achieved so far. Some of the Brussels elite refuse to see the reality, but it’s just a matter of time. What happened at the end of June was actually very simple: one of the EU’s strongest and most successful members has freely and democratically decided to leave the European club. It is hard to imagine a stronger signal that without substantial reforms the whole European project may go down the drain.
Brussels, however, responded to the referendum outcome with a typical dose of arrogance and ignorance. The EU institutions’ leaders’ joy was difficult to hide. British “troublemakers” were asked to leave as quickly as possible to allow a further deepening of the EU integration to go on. From all sides, predictions of economic disaster awaiting Britain began to dissipate. The City was supposed to move from London to Paris (where it would presumably be subject to higher taxes and an over-regulated labour market). We even heard voices saying that citizens increasingly reject the EU because integration has not gone far enough. National governments responded far more realistically, making it clear to the European Commission that the negotiation process should be led from member state’s capitals. It was once again clearly proven where the EU’s temple of ideology lies and who is really responsible for trade and jobs.
That initial firefight was interrupted by the summer break. So what comes next?
First of all, we know Article 50 will not be invoked until early next year. Those who hoped for the fastest possible Brexit will be disappointed. At the end of the eighties, it took more than three years for the 56,000-strong Greenland to leave the European Economic Community – a situation which is hardly comparable to the present one.
In the coming months, I anticipate several movements on the European political scene. First of all, expect further efforts to integrate the EU core, especially among the founding members, with support from the EU institutions pursuing their own interests. The Commission and the European Parliament will pull together and we cannot put any hope in the current European Parliament, which, amongst all the institutions, is known to be the most inclined to the dogma of ever closer union. Whether we like it or not, the political mainstream in Europe are trying to Europeanise almost everything: Germany will become yet more dominant after Brexit, so has no interest in loosening integration. Quite the contrary: further centralisation suits it, especially when it is expected to have the strongest say in the club.
The southern EU nations will most likely follow the same road. Being dependent to a large extent on the debt sharing and redistribution of subsidies and migrants, the South approves everything the EU submits.
In the rest of Europe, on the other hand, the pro-Brussels enthusiasm might cool down. This will likely involve mainly the North – Denmark, Sweden, Finland and the Netherlands, but also others in Central Europe.
With the UK leaving the EU, the geopolitical centre of gravity will move to the East and Germany will become the dominating power in the EU. This does not bode well for Central Europe. Berlin’s open-door policy towards immigrants is challenging for surrounding countries, as is its absolute anti-nuclear policy. Furthermore, the strong anti-Russian and anti-Putin rhetoric is difficult to trust. So far, Germany and Russia always managed to find common language and mark out their sphere of influence regardless of European or other countries’ interests.
Secondly, it can be expected that Britain will lose, to some extent, its interest in continental Europe, as it turns its focus to the Commonwealth and the United States. This could be especially harmful for Central Europe, which would lose an important ally in the fight for deregulation, less bureaucracy, free markets and deepening links across the Atlantic.
Despite these challenges ahead, Conservatives must not allow transatlantic relations to be weakened. They are vital both to our security and to our economy. One of our key tasks in the close future is to reiterate the simple fact that, despite the UK’s decision to withdraw from an international organisation, it is not leaving Europe or the transatlantic civilisation; and nor must it leave the European markets, international trade network or the European security architecture.
Whatever the contractual arrangement of our future relations will be, the Alliance of Conservatives and Reformists in Europe is looking forward to working with our British friends and partners. We are determined to promote fundamental reform of the European Union, for which the British referendum has inspired the necessary momentum.