A selection of experts answer a new question from Judy Dempsey on the foreign and security policy challenges shaping Europe’s role in the world.
Federiga BindiSenior fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and director of the Foreign Policy Initiative at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research
Whether the UK stays in or leaves the EU, the June 23 referendum will leave severe scars on Europe. If the UK stays, expect more nationalistic stances from all over the continent, adding to the already existing dangerous, centripetal forces. If Britain leaves, let’s just hope the baby is not thrown out with the bathwater.
In either case, what will be irreparably damaged will be the UK. Should the result be Remain, it is likely that parts of the country such as Scotland or Northern Ireland will be the ones making the difference: they will soon ask London for the price of their vote. Should the result be Brexit, those same areas are likely to be tempted to reassess their status in the UK. For the UK, it is therefore a lose-lose game, an unwise decision by Prime Minister David Cameron, who promised the referendum to win the 2015 general election, in the hope that a renewed government coalition with the Liberal Democrats would make it impossible to actually hold the vote.
There is a potential positive outcome amid all this potential disaster: that European politicians will finally learn the lesson that playing with fire for the sake of winning an election is never a wise idea.
Fraser CameronDirector of the EU-Asia Centre
The UK referendum on EU membership is severely damaging to the EU for several reasons.
First, it has encouraged a trend toward greater use of referenda, which are nearly always carried out for internal domestic or party-political reasons. In the 1975 referendum on Britain’s membership in the Common Market, it was to try to cover up divisions in the Labour Party. This time, it concerns very deep splits in the Conservative Party. There is nothing inherently democratic about referenda when there is a representative parliamentary democracy. But as more and more countries resort to referenda, there arises a serious question about the governance of the EU.
Second, referenda encourage exaggeration, lies, and extremist views. These are plain to see in the Leave campaign with blatant mistruths about Turkey, the EU budget, and a European army. Nigel Farage of the Euroskeptic UK Independence Party (UKIP) has gained wide traction for his abhorrent views on migrants. One very committed member of parliament in the Remain camp has been killed. The UK referendum campaign has witnessed a complete absence of rational arguments, with both sides playing the fear card.
Third, referenda rarely resolve issues. The poison that infects much of the British political bloodstream will not disappear, whoever wins on June 23. Indeed, Brexit could lead to another referendum on Scottish independence if voters in Scotland favor remaining in the EU.
Fourth, the EU is often blackmailed into making unnecessary concessions to secure a referendum victory. Before the second Irish referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, the Irish were promised that there would always be a European commissioner per member state, even though it is manifestly clear that there are too few jobs for 28 commissioners.
The EU always used to put some issues to one side before important national elections. Now, in addition to almost incessant elections in member states, there is the added complication of referenda. The result is that the union is becoming almost ungovernable.
So it is not just the UK referendum that is damaging Europe—all referenda damage the EU. Let us have EU-wide referenda if necessary, but let us move away from national referenda.
Thomas de WaalSenior associate at Carnegie Europe
I take it for granted that a Leave vote in the June 23 referendum and the exit of one of its big three powers would badly damage the European Union.
So I will speculate only about how a Remain vote (which currently looks like the likelier outcome, thank God) can be positive. If Europe wakes up on June 24 with Britain staying in, the EU will have survived a near-death experience. With anti-EU sentiments also on the rise elsewhere in Europe, the British referendum will have been be a reality check for even the most enthusiastic EU leaders.
The advocates of greater federalism were already in retreat before the referendum campaign. There is little appetite for treaty change. In February 2016, British Prime Minister David Cameron secured a declaration from the EU (now pretty much forgotten in the heat of the campaign) that stated that “references to ever closer union do not apply to the United Kingdom” and referred to “different paths of integration being available for different Member States.”
So a British Remain vote could be a boost for others outside the eurozone, such as the Czechs, Danes, Poles, and Swedes who advocate a more dynamic multispeed EU. That is surely good for the long-term health of the union.
Andrew DuffVisiting fellow at the European Policy Centre
Perfidious Albion rampant. The UK has bullied its way to a renegotiation of its terms of membership of the European Union by threatening to secede. The whole Brexit referendum, at once cynical and divisive, has been a vast distraction for the rest of the EU as it struggles to cope with its many crises, deep structural flaws, and collapsing political leadership.
Although the referendum campaign has barely touched on the future of Europe, a vote to leave will convulse the EU and its institutions as well as weaken the West for decades to come. A vote to remain, however, will be a soft Brexit. Implementing the February deal that the European Council conceded to British Prime Minister David Cameron will be complex, controversial, and protracted. The institutions are asked to compromise three cardinal principles of EU law: freedom to move, freedom to work, and nondiscrimination on the grounds of nationality. The Council of Ministers has to impose on itself a ludicrous “red card” procedure, which gives national parliaments yet more power to block EU laws. Worst of all, when a new Convention is called to change the treaties, it will be expected to jettison the EU’s historic political mission of “ever closer union.”
At that stage, it will be essential to formalize in terms of EU primary law the UK’s status as a deviant member state. This means defanging the British veto by ceasing to insist on unanimity for the ratification of future treaty amendments.
Jonathan EyalAssociate director for strategic research partnerships at the Royal United Services Institute
A British decision to quit the EU would inflict a heavy blow on Europe; it would complicate EU-NATO security relations, unleash a new structural dispute inside the EU, spark off worries from Central European nations about their marginalization, and force Germany to assume an even bigger leading role in the union.
A British decision to remain in the EU would avert all these dangers but would still deeply affect the rest of the continent. The idea that Britain would be rejuvenated after the referendum and emerge as a leading reforming force in the EU remains a myth; at best, a postreferendum UK government would keep its head down in the EU.
But the British experience will inspire populist movements in other EU member states. The British model of renegotiating away old commitments that are no longer considered domestically acceptable and ratifying this renegotiation in a national referendum is eminently attractive and copyable by other EU nations.
EU governments may be able to resist demands for fresh referenda. But they will not be able to push forward a more federalist European agenda. The time for utopian dreams of ever-closer EU integration is over; the British electorate has put paid to that.
István HegedűsChairman of the Hungarian Europe Society
Would a British exit from the EU have a negative spillover effect on the continent, or should the EU simply keep calm and carry on, as the majority of European citizens believe according to a recent survey by the Bertelsmann Stiftung?
The British referendum campaign has shown that membership in the European Union cannot be verified simply by a rational economic cost-benefit analysis from a pragmatic, utilitarian perspective. The tragic assassination of member of parliament Jo Cox on June 16 made it brutally evident that belonging to the EU is a fundamental identity dilemma. Populist anti-European political groups have a historic momentum to challenge the European political system and the institutional status quo created and dominated by pro-European elites. If the Brits leave, the European project will be symbolically devalued in each member state, and a potential domino effect might become devastating in Central Europe, where some governments have a love-hate relationship with the Western part of the EU.
More politics, fewer policy issues: to save the EU, Europeans need to reform its decisionmaking structures and public appearance. One way forward would be to strengthen party competition in the pro-EU political camp at the European level and inspire a courageous ideological struggle against anti-European, nationalist, populist forces. A stronger voice from the European institutions might reverse the logic of popular thinking: ask not what the EU can do for you, ask what you can do for the EU.
François HeisbourgSpecial adviser at the Foundation for Strategic Research
British Prime Minister David Cameron set an extraordinary precedent when he decided to put the UK’s membership of the EU to a referendum more than forty years after the country joined. This means that EU membership, the basis of all order in Europe, can be considered a mere concubinage to be flippantly thrown into doubt for second-level intraparty reasons.
It can get a lot worse.
If Britain leaves, the EU will have to decide which of its own feet it will shoot at. By being overly harsh toward the UK, Brussels may trigger Scottish independence. If Scotland votes to remain, it could hardly be turned away from EU membership. This would in turn encourage separatism elsewhere in the EU. Conversely, European leniency would make it easier for other countries to follow the UK’s exit.
If Britain remains, expect further instability with a deeply split Conservative Party. The English question—whether members of parliament from Northern Ireland, Wales, and Scotland should be able to vote in the House of Commons on matters affecting only England—may be reopened if England votes to leave in a UK that has decided to stay. If the EU attempts to integrate more deeply, an unstable Britain could call another referendum. That possibility may deter a divided EU from taking the steps necessary to save itself.
For the EU, the least bad outcome on June 23 would be a massive Remain victory, meaning specifically a majority of England’s vote (and, therefore, of the Tory electorate).
John KornblumSenior counselor at Noerr LLP
The EU has been so damaged by its own immobility that the Brexit debate is not even the most important reason for the chaos now building in the union. The causes begin with the end of the Cold War, growing American disinterest, horrific strategy failures on economic and financial policy, and the ravages of globalization. Add to this a sclerotic leadership insensitive to the needs of European societies and you have an explosive mixture. Britain may have focused the dissatisfaction of European voters, but it did not create it.
History cannot be stopped. The current structure is based on postwar needs. That era was more than fifty years ago. Even the end of the Cold War is already twenty-six years back. We are now in an entirely new period of history, and the EU as designed in Maastricht in the early 1990s simply cannot survive. Many changes are to be expected in coming years. As is usually the case, the transition will not be orderly.
Rem KortewegSenior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform
Brexit would be a geopolitical shock to Europe. A British exit from the EU would show that European union is reversible. It would motivate Euroskeptics across the EU, strengthen isolationist tendencies, and weaken European cohesion at a moment when the EU faces a host of challenges including the migration crisis, the future of the eurozone, and tense relations with Russia.
Economically, the departure of the bloc’s second-largest economy would harm a feeble eurozone recovery. The IMF has warned of a post-Brexit recession in Britain and of damage to the UK’s closest European trading partners. Militarily, the EU would lose one of its most capable partners precisely when NATO and the EU are discussing closer cooperation to confront hybrid threats and deal with illegal immigration. Politically, it would damage the EU’s credibility abroad, raise questions about German dominance in the union, and feed uncertainty about the EU’s future.
But the EU would not be irreparably damaged if it drew the right lessons from the referendum. The British are not the only ones dissatisfied with the EU. Neither should Brexit be cause for celebration that the difficult Brits have left, nor should a UK vote to remain become a mandate to continue as before. Whatever the outcome, the referendum makes one thing clear: EU leaders must increase their efforts to regain the confidence of their citizens.
Gianni RiottaMember of the Council on Foreign Relations
Brexit would kill Europe. Period. Naive analysts were sure the failure of the proposed European Constitution would electrify Europe, when in fact it almost electrocuted it. Then, observers predicted, a healthy shock would come from Greece, the euro crisis, refugees, Crimea, Ukraine, Vladimir Putin, the self-styled Islamic State, and the rise of populism. Each season, the pundits saw a new emergency ready to coalesce Europe’s leaders into a symposium of sages and patriots.
It never worked like that. At each passage, Europeans became more and more disillusioned, nasty, acrimonious, and ready to follow any pied piper playing his angry flute.
Brexit would open a Pandora’s box in the UK, ending the country’s common values as we have known them since the end of the empire after World War II. Other states would follow suit or, much worse, would blackmail the EU, threatening their own exit. Brexit would be a disaster for the UK and the end of European Union I; something smaller, less ambitious, more provincial may follow, but in due course.
Even a Remain victory would not mean the troubles are over, as few Britons will vote for the EU; most of the Remain camp is occupied by people afraid of Brexit, not waving blue and gold flags. You’ve got to understand the Queen’s subjects, Remainers and Leavers alike: they miss Winston Churchill, and Europe is offering them Jean-Claude Juncker.
James RogersDirector of the Department of Political and Strategic Studies at the Baltic Defence College and senior editor of European Geostrategy
If the UK votes to leave the EU in 2016, it will not only irreparably damage Europe but may even empower those who would seek to pull it apart.
First, a British exit would devastate the image of the European project: not only would the EU have lost its most globalized, most militarily, financially, and culturally powerful member, but it would have also lost the country most supportive of the EU’s continued alignment with NATO and its crowning success stories—enlargement and the single market.
Second, Brexit would further empower British Euroskepticism. Euroskeptics will continue to see the EU as a dangerous threat, irrespective of whether the UK is in or out. This would likely lead to the reemergence of London’s traditional European geostrategy: frustrating and weakening the most powerful political conglomeration on the European mainland, now the EU.
Picture this perfect geopolitical storm: what if the United States becomes increasingly pinned down in managing China’s rise in the Indo-Pacific region; if Russia becomes more aggressive in rolling back EU influence in Europe’s Eastern neighborhood; and if the UK emerges as a potent competitor to the EU, bent on the organization’s dissolution? Brexit can mean only one thing: Europe is in for a rough ride.
The author writes here strictly in a personal capacity.
Gwendolyn SasseNonresident associate at Carnegie Europe
The biggest damage has been done to British politics and society, and whatever the result of the June 23 referendum on the UK’s EU membership, it is unclear whether and how this damage can be repaired. British Prime Minister David Cameron’s victory in the 2015 general election was premised on holding this referendum. His subsequent U-turn that saw him advocate for Britain to remain inside the EU, accompanied by a split of the government into a Leave and a Remain faction, could only have one effect: the erosion of public trust in the government and in politics in general.
Moreover, the Brexit campaign, hinged on the fear of uncontrolled immigration, has shifted the parameters of the debate on immigration. Xenophobia and racism have become acceptable in public and political discourse far beyond the traditional core of Euroskeptics. They even claimed the life of the pro-EU member of parliament Jo Cox on June 16.
Without the UK referendum, the EU would not look particularly strong at the moment either. But a Brexit vote—and perhaps already the precedent of such a referendum—is likely to inspire other member states to pursue similar paths. This would chip away at the EU’s internal and external legitimacy and strengthen populism in and across member states.
Ulrich SpeckSenior fellow at the Transatlantic Academy
The UK referendum on EU membership should be seen as a wake-up call: if the EU does not change, it is going to fall apart.
There are currently two ways of thinking about the EU: federalists want to see it moving toward a state-like entity, while nationalists want it to fail. Both sides feed each other.
The nationalists don’t understand the huge benefits the EU brings to nation-states, making them more successful and more competitive in a globalized world. The federalists don’t understand that the democratic nation-state is going to remain the core political entity, the place where power and legitimacy rest.
It is time for a third way of thinking. If pro-EU forces want to push back against the nationalists, they need to make a different case for the EU. They need to start describing what the EU is and does in terms of services for the nation-states, and they need to think how those services can be improved.
Stephen SzaboExecutive director of the Transatlantic Academy
The UK referendum on June 23 will harm Europe no matter what the outcome. The mere fact that a major EU member state is voting not on an aspect of EU governance but on its membership is unprecedented and will send secondary shock waves through the entire EU and well beyond. Immigration and sovereignty will continue to dominate the UK’s and the EU’s agendas regardless of how the vote goes.
If the UK votes to stay, it will do so by a slim margin, which will not be a resounding vote of confidence in Europe. If the country votes to remain, it will hardly revitalize the European project as Britain is likely to continue to be a reluctant member that will have opted to stay in to limit European integration from within.
If the UK leaves, Europe will face a choice. It could use the crisis as an opportunity for reform and recommitment, or its leaders could give in to the forces pushing for further devolution and possibly disintegration. Much will depend on whether European leaders rise to the test the way they did after the end of World War II.
Pierre VimontSenior associate at Carnegie Europe
No one should underestimate the importance of the UK referendum on EU membership. But in the end, the future of Europe is going to rely not on the result of this referendum but on member states and leaders being ready to move toward more Europe and keen to mobilize the political will to do so.
The vote on June 23 will no doubt make a crucial impact on the ongoing discussion inside the EU. But whichever way it goes, the referendum will not significantly change the current political reality inside the union.
Britain is already halfway out. If it decides to leave altogether, one can suspect this position will open the way to a very painful and protracted—let alone ambiguous—process. It will then be for EU leaders to take responsibility and decide whether or not to buy time and try to arrange some new status for the UK. If they do so, the Europe we have known so far will be definitely over.
If, on the contrary, Britain remains in the EU, it seems obvious the UK government will be in no mood to support any major progress, as its main concern will be to reduce the political tension in the country and mend the divisions in its own Conservative Party.
As the UK is more reluctant than ever about the whole European project, the other 27 member states will have to make up their minds about the future of the union. Furthermore, if they are determined to go ahead, they will have the difficult task of defining the delicate path on which to embark. With more-than-reserved public opinion in most member states toward the EU, a constant rise of populist parties, and Brussels institutions perceived as weak and hesitant, the ambition will need to be well tailored, be politically astute, and demonstrate a genuine commitment from EU leaders to more Europe.
The challenge is huge and success is far from certain. But the UK referendum—whatever its outcome—looks more like an opportunity than a nuisance.