When Theresa May addressed the 2016 Conservative Party Conference on the subject of Britain’s June 23 vote to leave the EU, she promised a “global Britain” free from European shackles and in full possession of its political and economic sovereignty. The British prime minister emphasized in particular that such a change would allow for more profitable trade agreements than the UK has had as an EU member while protecting the country against inflows of migrants and keeping Britain’s access to the EU single market.

Listening to this speech, one could not be blamed for remaining skeptical. For those old enough to have gone through the difficult adoption of the EU’s Maastricht Treaty in 1992, May’s promises were reminiscent of the kind of hyperbolic narrative that prevailed in those days in many member states about how European integration represented the best possible protection against the threats of globalization. Back then, this political argument won the day; but reality struck back with a vengeance thirteen years later, notably in France and the Netherlands, where the EU’s draft constitutional treaty was overwhelmingly rejected in referenda. Promises had not been delivered, and voters had not forgotten.

Pierre Vimont
Vimont is a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe. His research focuses on the European Neighborhood Policy, transatlantic relations, and French foreign policy.
More >

This pattern of unfulfilled promises and disillusioned citizens is in danger of repeating itself as the British people discover that the vision presented to them of life after Brexit is a utopia. To break this cycle, EU and national leaders need to spell out some hard truths about Europe’s achievements so far. They also have to engage in national debates in each member state on what the European future should be and, in so doing, offer a fresh narrative to their populations.

A Narrative of Inflated Expectations

Naturally, a comparison of the EU after the Maastricht Treaty and the UK after the Brexit vote deals with two completely opposite political positions. In the 1990s, pro-EU leaders grossly overestimated the union’s capacity to safeguard the European social model against the growing pressures of the new globalized world. Today, the Tory leadership is indulging in its own overestimation—of the UK’s capacity to strike a better deal after its divorce from the EU than the relationship London has had so far inside the bloc.

Yet in both cases, citizens made the same political choice, namely to accept promises that could not be fulfilled and that political leaders knew would not be delivered. Observing this constant overexpectation in European politics during the last twenty-five years, one may wonder why it is so. Some may see this trend as an illustration of the way politicians are used to deluding their voters (or maybe even themselves), while others may attribute it to a genuine lack of understanding of what the EU is about and how it works.

Whatever the reason, the outcome of this distorted narrative is plain for all to see: it stirs up strong dissatisfaction and even anger among a growing number of European citizens toward EU institutions. It is worth noting that the people who voted against the Maastricht Treaty in a 1992 referendum in France showed characteristics—middle or low incomes, low levels of education—identical to those of voters who supported Brexit in the UK. In other words, the EU is facing the same political reality now as then: an exaggerated positive message about Europe is met with increasing skepticism by citizens who have been somewhat left out of the system.

As time has passed and there has been no real change of attitude from European leaders, Euroskeptics have outnumbered the positive messengers and won the day. If the same recipe leads to the same result, similar consequences may well emerge on the opposite side of European politics, and the Brexit narrative about a sovereign Britain could suffer the same eventual fate as the hyperbole of the pro-Maastricht camp in its time.

This paradigm of unrealistic promises forms a clear thread in EU history. There has been a permanent bias in the European narrative toward exaggerating the expected results of any breakthrough, as if the average EU citizen should be fed with excessive optimism to keep faith in the European future. That is not to say there has been no progress during these years, but the inclination toward overexpectation has been a steady feature of the post-Maastricht era. Having reached a peak in 1992 after many divisive years dedicated to setting up the Common Agricultural Policy, progressing on the single market, or reaching a compromise on the UK’s budget rebate, the EU had to keep spirits high at a time when political fatigue was slowly setting in.

In fact, since the Maastricht Treaty, the EU has proposed no significant new political horizon to European citizens to mobilize efforts and capture the popular imagination. Hyperbole became the name of the game to mitigate the EU’s lack of any genuine ambition. This is how EU leaders emphasized in 2000 that the union’s Lisbon Strategy would make Europe the world’s most advanced and best-performing economy in the twenty-first century, the euro would become the most competitive currency, and European foreign and security policy would transform the EU into a preeminent actor on the global stage.

European citizens were not fooled. They easily detected the reality behind the words, just by observing divisions during the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the near breakdown of the eurozone following the 2008 global financial crisis, or the EU’s absence in the Syrian war that began in 2011.

The Great Brexit Delusion

The same consequences could well result from the Brexit narrative currently being pursued by some British elites. Calls for a complete restoration of British sovereignty over UK policies and actions go hand in hand with the promise of a brighter future for Britain—a future that seems hard to foresee if only one looks at the facts.

Trade is the most obvious example of promises exceeding reality. If London implements the option of a so-called hard Brexit, no new powers will be transferred to EU institutions in the future. That means none of the realistic scenarios so far envisaged for the UK’s new relationship with the EU—a customs union, membership in the European Economic Area, tailor-made arrangements akin to those the EU has with Switzerland—can apply. The only choice left will be a free-trade deal or possibly an Association Agreement to establish political and economic cooperation. Both of those options would put Britain in a much less favorable trade position than it has today with regard to the country’s access to the EU single market.

In the same way, such an arrangement would make Britain’s future trade negotiations with third-country partners more difficult, as the UK’s negotiating position can only be weakened when London is left on its own. Today, the UK alone represents just a fraction of total EU trade flows with Europe’s main partners. It is hard to believe third countries will easily accommodate the interests of a trade partner that will have lost the leverage of the much more powerful trade coalition that is the EU.

Naturally, an EU without Britain will also suffer. The current perceptions of most of Europe’s strategic partners, like China, India, and Japan, seem to indicate genuine doubts about where the EU’s 27 remaining member states are heading. The many challenges that have rocked EU stability—the eurozone crisis, the mishandling of migration inflows, or the increasing opposition in many member states to ongoing discussions on free-trade agreements—have already taken their toll on the union’s strategic outlook. Brexit can only aggravate this downturn. Britain, a traditional supporter of free trade, will now be less active in EU-internal debates on such trade agreements.

In addition, the British withdrawal will further weaken a European economy already at pains to find new ways to boost failing growth. As for foreign policy, the separation between the EU and the UK can only be mutually detrimental, whatever arrangements the two sides can find at a later stage to maintain a pragmatic partnership. This assessment is all the more apparent at a time when Europeans, faced with the incoming administration of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, should present a united position if they intend to defend their interests.

The Same Old Narrative?

There is no reason, therefore, to feed European or British narratives with unrealistic new promises. Yet recent EU meetings have appeared to apply the same old recipe. While acknowledging the difficult times that lie ahead after the Brexit decision, EU statements still lean toward inflated expectations.

The migration challenge illustrates this point. Leaders describe the EU as having turned the corner of the refugee crisis on the migration route through the Western Balkans; and they present the union’s migration compacts—comprehensive packages of development assistance aimed at reducing migration—as progressing rapidly when the EU’s African partners are far from convinced of the merits of this process and openly question Brussels’s capacity to raise promised financial resources. In the meantime, transit camps in Greece are swelling, Italian shores are receiving high numbers of migrants, and populations in most member states are less and less comfortable with the prospect of accepting more migrants in their vicinity.

The same point can be made about other current challenges, on which leaders commit to internal security or economic growth without much hope of any swift delivery.

Yet signs of a new approach may be emerging, as if lessons are starting to be learned. The president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, in particular seems to be adopting a different attitude when it comes to describing the political reality of Europe today. On taking office in November 2014, he indicated straightforwardly that no new EU enlargement would take place during his tenure, which runs until 2019. More recently, in his State of the Union address to the European Parliament on September 14, 2016, he asserted that the EU was not the “United States of Europe.” In the same speech and with the same realistic vein, contrasting with some of the European Commission’s previous positions, Juncker admitted that with regard to the refugee issue, no solution could be forced on member states without their consent.

The same could be said of the conclusions of the September 16 meeting of the 27 post-Brexit member states, whose leaders gathered in Bratislava to discuss the future of the EU after the UK vote. The overall spirit that inspired the declaration and road map adopted on that day was one of realism, with a focus on the short-term challenges that the EU needs to address without delay, such as slow economic growth and internal security threats. None of the traditional vibrant calls for a new EU ambition was heard at this informal summit, which seemed eager to fall into line with the current somber mood of the European population.

Time for Hard Truths

Nevertheless, it may be too early to declare the beginning of a new era of a more down-to-earth approach from the EU leadership. For such a change to occur and for the union to break with past attitudes, much more will have to be overtly stated. Specifically, EU leaders will need to spell out some hard truths, if only to answer the many questions citizens all around Europe have been asking in vain for many years about the end point of the European project.

If European leaders could find a way of admitting publicly that the EU is not and will not be a federal state, that the EU’s next enlargements require a clear and common understanding among all present members about what the internal organization of a future union should be, and that some EU powers should simply be dropped as they have never translated into substantial action at the European level, this would represent a significant political step. A wake-up call of this kind could only improve popular support for the European cause.

Yet to be really effective, such a change in the traditional European narrative will need to be carried out not only by the heads of EU institutions but also by national leaders in their own states. Here again, the president of the European Commission in his 2016 State of the Union address alluded to this reality, which underlines the EU’s often-criticized democratic deficit. Indeed, national leaders have tended recently to leave the EU narrative to the Brussels circles and avoid initiating a genuine debate on European issues at the national level. It is time to change this pattern and support the EU in a more persuasive way on the domestic front.

From this point of view, 2017 represents a rare occasion for such national debates, as crucial elections will take place in three major European countries: the Netherlands, France, and Germany. It is far from guaranteed that mainstream political parties in these member states will want to seize such an opportunity to display their pro-EU convictions as they endure difficult confrontations with rising populist movements. But even if that does not happen, apart from the regrettable missed opportunity it would mean, political leaders will not be allowed to go on forever trying to escape a genuine national conversation on Europe. Having for too long preferred to make exaggerated promises that cannot be delivered, leaders will be obliged at some stage to face reality and start explaining to their populations what the past, present, and future EU is really about.