For people like me – who spent most of their professional life working with the British – the result of the vote on 23 June was a disaster, also at the personal level. The UK will be missed – not least by Northern European countries. We have shared policy priorities and positions with Britain on numerous issues. We will miss the professionalism, pragmatism and seriousness of our UK colleagues.
But “Brexit is Brexit” as the new British Prime Minister, Theresa May, says. To believe in a turnaround is an illusion and would – if attempted – create even deeper divisions in the British society and legends on how the elite once more crushed the people, turning the UK into an impossible partner in the EU. The task now must be to ensure as harmonious a separation as possible.
It is worth observing the popular reaction in other member states. Pundits had predicted that a Brexit vote would lead other EU countries to follow in the footsteps of the UK. The opposite has happened. Support for the EU has gone up significantly in many EU countries, and no member is tempted to hold a referendum on continued membership of the EU. The rise in pro-EU sentiment has been particularly high in Northern European countries, which some had predicted would be the first to follow the British. In Germany the rise has been close to 20% and the popularity of Chancellor Merkel has increased markedly. In France President Hollande can observe with satisfaction that Marine le Pen, leader of the right-wing National Front party, has been unable to capitalize on the UK exit vote. (Nice is another story).
Part of this rise in pro-EU sentiments is no doubt due to the immediate political and economic chaos in the UK. But it also reflects a significant difference in attitudes towards the EU. Dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs has been on the rise over recent years in almost all EU countries, but for different reasons.
In the UK many have believed that without the constraints imposed by membership the country could prosper. As a former superpower Britain could make it on its own. Few – in any other EU country – nourish this illusion. They do not call into question the need for close European cooperation, but many are deeply dissatisfied with the EU’s performance over recent years, starting with the perceived failure of the Euro and reaction to the immigration crises.
As a non-Euro country Britain has been a by-stander to the turmoil. It has profited greatly from the monetary stability in Europe, which the Economic and Monetary Union has provided, combined with the freedom to let the pound fluctuate according to own needs. The UK has not been forced to engage in an “austerity” policy to bring public accounts rapidly into order (though the now discredited finance minister George Osborne chose to do so); this is in contrast to the situation in many EU countries on the continent where we have seen the outcome in the form of a steep rise in anti-European sentiments.
An informal European Council “at 27” will now take place in Bratislava in September to discuss “how to overcome the popular dissatisfaction and live up to the expectation of Europeans for us to do better when it comes to providing security, jobs and growth, as well as hope for a better future”.
One can only hope that sooner or later all the leaders will start taking more seriously the recommendation of IMF, OECD, ECB, the US Treasury and most serious economists (the same bodies that foresaw serious economic consequences of any Brexit) that Europe now needs more investments and in general a more expansionary macroeconomic policy to overcome its economic problems. It cannot only rely on the European Central Bank to do the job. And it is not only the economists – but millions of people in many countries – that call for a change in policy.
The immigration issue played a significant role in the UK, but mainly focused on intra-EU migration. This is also an issue – although to a much lesser extent – in many continental European countries, but the principle of free movement of labour is not called into question. Present proposals from the Commission on a revision of the posted worker’s directive and the rules on social security coordination will hopefully eliminate the most obvious examples of misuse and social security fraud.
However, the prevalent theme in most European countries is illegal immigration and refugees. The interim agreement with Turkey and the closure of the Balkan route has dramatically reduced the numbers. But it is a fragile truce. The failed military coup in Turkey and not least the reaction of President Erdogan could call the Turkish deal into question, with unpredictable consequences. At the same time the Nice terrorist attack showed that the Homeland Security agenda must continue to be given the highest priority – not least to avoid an amalgam between immigration and terrorism. It is in these areas that the fight to regain the confidence of the European population will be won – or lost.
So EU must not become stuck in it dealing with the Brexit aftermath and make this an all-consuming focus of attention in the coming years. It cannot permit itself to repeat the situation from earlier years when Mrs. Thatcher’s demand “to get my money back” paralysed the European Community for five years.
The EU needs to move on and deal with its own pressing problems.