Many continental observers were surprised that the Brexit vote seemed to disintegrate Britain rather than the EU. Far from accentuating tensions among the remaining EU member states, it seems to have reinforced splits in a deeply divided British political system. However, the short-term political drama may hide long-term trajectories that will only become visible in a few years. Although we will only be able to see these outcomes with real certainty once they have come about, it may be useful to reflect on the possible trajectory of the EU after Brexit.
The most immediate concern for many leaders, and certainly for the Berlin government, is to avoid contagion. If Brexit demonstrates that abandoning the disadvantages of EU membership but keeping most of the benefits is viable, the likelihood of exit referenda in other member states increases. The pick-and-choose approach puts a core principle of the EU (and of any political system) at stake: membership is not based on pure cost-benefit calculations but is a give-and-take, and a long-term commitment. It is thus a vital institutional self-interest of national leaders to make exit costly. This is why many insist on the indivisibility of the ‘four freedoms’: they do not want to punish Britain, but want to avoid a chain reaction of exit referenda. This is backed up by the idea that on the whole, the EU market for most economic sectors is more important than the UK market.
During the exit negotiations and after the UK has gone, the EU has a number of large open issues to deal with. First and foremost is the need to ensure the stability of the Eurozone. Although the UK has not adopted the Euro, it has in the past resisted a number of EU-wide policies aimed at budgetary supervision, as well as on banking and capital market regulation. Brexit may well reduce the easy access of the City of London to the single market, and so the EU might adopt tighter rules in these fields and thus avoid that national governments privileging their banks at the expense of others.
Military and security policy is another area where one could expect stronger EU cooperation after the UK is no longer able to block practically every step of further institutionalization. This does not mean the creation of something even close to a joint EU army, but rather smaller pragmatic steps such as the founding of an EU headquarters for joint military operations.
Another area in which EU powers may strengthen is the protection of external borders, and policies towards refugees more generally. The recent creation of the EU Border and Costal Guard is a first step towards greater EU involvement in a field which is normally considered to be a core state power – but in which a number of member states have failed during the refugee crisis.
We are likely to see further integration in these areas. These are fields in which the UK is already absent, or in which it only participates to a limited degree. Brexit is thus not likely to change much here, and the integration dynamic does not come from Euro-federalist elites but from the need to solve transborder policy problems, and the inability of member states to cope with these problems.
This further integration of some policy areas is likely to go hand in hand with a continuing shift of power towards the European Council of Heads of State and of Government. In other words, the increase of EU powers will be accompanied by an increased role of the member states acting collectively. But as the European Council does not have substantial administrative and policy-making resources, it will still have to rely to a large degree on the European Commission.
Finally, there is a strong feeling among the EU’s leaders that it should deliver good policies to its citizens. This attitude might make it more inward-looking in terms of the benefits of its decisions.
In short, the most likely post-Brexit scenario for the EU is integration as usual – unless there are major exit referenda in other member states or electoral victories of Eurosceptic parties. This means slow and step-by-step moves in selected areas. A large leap forward after the UK has left is unlikely given eurosceptic publics in other member states, and the unclear value of such a bold move. Instead, the EU will continue trying to solve problems the member states cannot solve alone, in policy areas where they can act more efficiently and more effectively together. At the same time, some states may continue to be exempted from participating in certain policies (such as Denmark in military affairs).
A partial or complete disintegration of the EU because of Brexit seems unlikely as well. Those favouring it are the parties of the Eurosceptic right (much less than on the left). Their electoral success may make mainstream parties of the centre left or centre right more reluctant about further integration. But they are mostly minority parties, and at present, leaving the Eurozone or leaving the EU does not look attractive for most voters.
This does not mean that the upcoming negotiations about the concrete shape of Brexit will not be just as hard for the EU as for the UK, or that there will be no conflicts among the remaining member states. In the Eurozone crisis or in the migration crisis, these conflicts have been very strong. But the EU may be able to deal with them with its well-established tools: making compromises, supporting weaker members, agreeing on partial solutions and allowing strong dissenters from new policies to delay or suspend participation. In other words: integration as usual.
By Professor Markus Jachtenfuchs, Hertie School of Governance, Berlin.