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15 May 2019updated 08 Sep 2021 3:19pm

What the EU has learned from Brexit

This was Europe’s “Machiavellian moment”, the point at which a political order comes to terms with its own mortality.

By Luuk van Middelaar

It is striking how confidently, at times almost smugly, the EU is behaving in the Brexit turmoil. It exudes pride in its unity, consistency and sense of purpose, all of which contrast nicely with events at Westminster.

You could almost forget how insecure the continent felt on 24 June 2016, in the hours after the UK referendum result. During the campaign, at the request of 10 Downing Street, European leaders had done little but wait, watch and burn candles. Now, the future not just of Britain but of Europe was at stake. An awareness sank in that Brexit would bring uncertainty and danger to the continental side of the Channel, too. The internal balance of power would shift. Populists across the continent felt emboldened; other departures might follow and cause the European Union to fall apart.

In early reactions in Brussels, the consternation and indignation were tangible. The Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker wanted the “deserters” to initiate divorce proceedings without delay. The French president François Hollande, unafraid of cliché, said, “History is knocking at the door” and asked for urgent action. True to style, the German chancellor Angela Merkel asked for “calm and prudence”. The Council president Donald Tusk – a man increasingly famous for his rhetorical vigour – was brief: “No hysteria, please… What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” The EU’s priority was to demonstrate a will to survive; the UK’s departure would not be a death blow.

In the weeks and months that followed, the Brexit vote turned into a moment of truth for the EU. Although some in Brussels preferred to put all the blame on English insularity, the Murdoch press or the Leave camp’s lies, sober minds realised that British Euroscepticism was not a local phenomenon. The EU had an existential problem. This was its “Machiavellian moment”, to borrow a term from the historian JGA Pocock, meaning the point at which a political order comes to terms with its own mortality amid the “stream of irrational events”. It suddenly recognises the need to defend itself, to fight for its sovereignty and authority, or face destruction.

Two aspects stand out: Europe had to protect its voters and protect itself. Both presume a conceptual shake-up. Offering protection to its citizens requires the EU to relinquish its self-image as a freedom-creating regulator. The Common Market built since the 1960s had been a beacon for all those who benefit from openness, exchange and continent-wide freedom of movement: entrepreneurs, students, tourists, the young, the rich, the successful. Encouraged by this buoyancy, Brussels had lost sight of the less mobile citizens who see this Europe not as an opportunity but as a Trojan horse for globalisation that threatens their jobs, their security, their daily lives. It is not so much a matter of “elites” against “the people” as a fundamental divergence between the interests of two halves of society – what the British in 2016 learned to understand as the 48 per cent versus the 52 per cent.

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After the Brexit vote, Tusk and Juncker realised that their club had to find a better balance between the freedoms it provides and the protection it offers or else it would lose the support of solid majorities. This also became a theme for newcomer Emmanuel Macron, who in the post-Brexit spring of 2017 rode to presidential victory in France with the call for “a Europe that protects” – against hyper-globalisation, against cyber crime, against climate change, against turmoil in the Middle East.

To take another example, laid bare in the refugee crisis of 2015-16, there can be no shared space free of internal borders if responsibility for external borders is not shared. No Schengen without border guards: a mental volte-face.

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In addition, the EU needed a method of protecting itself against sudden danger and threats. Its straitjacket of bureaucratic rules offers predictability and fairness,
but becomes a major handicap as soon as there is a need to decide on the spot and act without delay. During the eurozone crisis of 2010-12, when the survival of the common currency was at stake, the EU had shown an unexpected capacity to act outside treaty rules. Leaders “improvised” to save the euro. Facing death, they mustered a political will to protect their union, something US and UK
financial commentators never did understand.

But it had all happened in a speechless race against the clock. It was only after Brexit and the 2016 US presidential election that leaders found the words.

Expressing their new desire to live in the “stream of irrational events”, as Pocock would put it, then French presidential candidate Macron spoke of “European sovereignty” (without defining it) and Merkel of the need for Europeans “to take our destiny into our own hands”. Although France and Germany have not engineered major policy breakthroughs with the other EU27 states since then, electorates across Europe clearly feel safer within the Union than outside. In no member state – not Hungary, Poland or Italy – is there a demonstrable majority in favour of leaving. That mortal danger has been averted.

The sad irony is that the country that triggered this “Machiavellian” awareness has not been rewarded. Nobody is grateful to the UK. For sure, the EU’s leadership protected the unity of the EU27 vis-à-vis London, but it has not yet managed to contemplate coolly and strategically the place of this important neighbour on the European continent.

It must do so, and soon, if Europe is to play a role in the geopolitical chess game with Donald Trump, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin. Instead the EU is stuck in divorce logic. Can the Union rise above Brussels’ resentment and the partiality of national interests and place strategic interests first, including its interest in fostering good relations with this crucial neighbour? That will be the true test of its Machiavellian moment in the years ahead.

Luuk van Middelaar is a political theorist. His latest book is “Alarums and Excursions” (Agenda)