Managing Director of the Genshagen Foundation
The British vote for Brexit has sent a wave of panic across the United Kingdom and the rest of Europe. We now need to learn from the people’s disaffection with the European Union, and move forward.
Bringing European politics back to square one is not an option. In the aftermath of Brexit, some are suggesting that we start the European integration process over to free ourselves at last from the “monster” that the European Union has become, to quote a German euro-critic following the British vote. There is no going back, but the division runs deep. We should have been better prepared for 23 June 2016: British voters have done no more than push to the extreme a growing sense of alienation between the people and European politics, which first became apparent in 1992 when France and Denmark held their own referendums on the Maastricht Treaty.
In these difficult times, there is no longer any room for detailed and balanced debate, and voices against European integration are growing louder. However, the reasons for the UK’s vote are numerous, and not all are “home grown”: many people have lost trust in their political leaders; they fear the increasingly powerful process of economic and political globalisation; they are swayed by shrewd and smooth-tongued politicians with a simplistic, dangerous and often xenophobic message; and the European Union has proven itself incapable of responding quickly and cohesively to the crises and conflicts that have emerged in recent years. It is up to each of us now to judge how significant these factors are in our own countries.
Those who recognised the success and achievements of European integration, both in the United Kingdom and elsewhere, seemed afraid to speak out. European integration is an unprecedented success story: it has maintained peace between Member States for over half a century, and it is the sine qua non of social prosperity and global competitiveness. As I write this, I wonder if I am merely stating the obvious or resorting to hackneyed arguments, but this is far from being the case.
Failures with far-reaching ramifications
But these truths only become clear when viewed through the prism of past failures and errors, some of which are still having a profound impact now: the precarious creation of a single currency without a common economic policy; the removal of internal borders without strengthening external borders; and the lightness with which Member States decided to ignore the single currency convergence criteria when unable to meet them. European integration does not allow for double standards, and Germany must have recognised this when it called for solidarity in tackling the migration crisis.
The British, who have never been fully committed to the European Union, have drawn their own conclusions and have chosen the worst of two difficult options. The European Union must now act fast. First, we must place our “wait and see” approach behind us: those who believe in the Economic and Monetary Union and in the Schengen area must now move on and make good the deficiencies in these crucial areas of European integration. Second, France and Germany have a duty to overcome their differences and to put forward joint and workable proposals to shape the future Union. A “hard core” must be quickly established around the six founding Member States. Third, Poland will have to play a key role in Europe – why not by reinforcing the Weimar Triangle? The new Warsaw government’s dream of building a “special relationship” with the United Kingdom has been nipped in the bud. But the Union could draw inspiration from this when developing its security and defence policy, the only Triangle initiative – in terms of defence – having failed because of objections from London. Obstacles to each of these three goals will be both numerous and formidable, but viable alternatives are hard to find.
Brexit marks the biggest failure in the history of European integration, that of creating a united Europe in the aftermath of the cold war. The European Union will miss the United Kingdom, its economic power, its experience, its global network and its defence capacity. But while the United Kingdom is leaving the European Union, it is not leaving Europe. It will therefore be in the best interests of the EU to build strong cross-Channel ties once Brexit is complete.