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15 June 2016

Brexit: better to be prepared than to be caught off guard?

Both Britain’s possible withdrawal to the Atlantic camp and Russia’s insanity will shape Europe for many decades to come

With June 23 approaching, hysteria prompted by Great Britain’s possible exit from the European Union has reached unprecedented levels. Whereas a year ago only Russian Eurosceptics detached from reality cited the possibility of EU disintegration triggered by a British “no” vote in the referendum, this point of view was expressed last week by Sweden’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. Whereas in February, heads of European governments kowtowed to the British while hastily signing off on another list of concessions,  today’s Der Spiegel bears a cover pitifully begging “Please, don’t go!” and devotes the majority of  its pages of the latest issue “to a multitude of reasons on why the EU cannot do without Britain”. It seems that Europeans are ready to undergo any humiliation in order to hold on to the EU member state most questionable in terms of its contribution to the pan-European process.

Vladimir Putin recently stated: “if someone has decided to drown, it is impossible to save them” and this is one of the few statements of his that I personally cannot help but agree with. A detailed analysis of the consequences of Brexit shows that this sweet water-locked state will face sharp economic decline; a disaster for the financial sector which has taken so long to build; significantly worsened trade terms; a mass exodus of migrants from the “new” EU member states who make a significant contribution to local economic growth – not to mention an aggravation of the situation in Northern Ireland, and the possibility of raising the question of Scottish independence yet again. The coming years will bring a sequence of such stern tests for Britain “rising from its knees” that I seriously doubt that any other country will want to follow its example any time soon.

At the same time, in my opinion, Europeans should now focus on the benefits that a hasty British “no” may present to them: not only economic (benefits related, for example, to the relocation of regional headquarters of global companies to the continent or the growth of influence of Frankfurt as the global financial center). First of all, it is worth trying to devise a way to “restructure” the European project under new circumstances. While I have no intention of presenting a streamlined proposal of such a restructuring here, let me address two points.

It is well-known that opponents of united Europe all too often label the project “imperial”, arguing that it violates the principles of sovereignty and reduces individual national states to provinces. (Note: in the case of empires, any reduction in territory controlled is a sure sign of decline and imminent demise. Empires cannot retreat whilst preserving the old order and become stronger than ever before.) As a rule, one or two uprisings, one or two secessions destroy empires – especially ones with such complex structures as the European one. Suffice it to recall how briefly the Soviet Union lasted following the Baltic republics’ declaration of independence. Which is why Britain’s exit in itself constitutes a clear blow to those who regard Europe as yet another imperial project. Are you leaving? No problem, if you decide to return, just let us know, for God’s sake. The door’s wide open for both directions of transit.

The exit of the UK from the EU should be used for two purposes. To begin with, to strengthen and unify the union of the remaining states, since the main “trouble-maker” is no longer in the room. Secondly – and this is even more important – to create a more flexible, “two-tier” EU structure. There should be “full members” (membership conditions would be involvement in the Schengen area, Euro zone, updated common foreign and defense policy, etc.), and “second-tier countries” which have adopted the acquis, and which enjoy the benefits of fundamental European freedoms, but retain certain powers which are not delegated to Brussels. A clear distinction between those who “participate and decide” and those who “enjoy benefits but do not take decisions” would set the record straight and, more importantly, would alleviate the allergy to EU enlargement, since in the hypothetical case of Ukraine’s accession, let’s say, the country would not influence  the European Union’s most important decisions for many years.

Moreover, the British demarche, which will lead to the defining of the thus far rather vague rules for European states to leave the EU, could now be used to formulate conditions under which countries can be excluded from the European Union (the issue is not settled at the moment, which is far more dangerous than the lack of procedure for voluntary exit). Any union should be entitled to get rid of a member which discredits it – and this, together with the very possibility for a country to leave, as well as the establishment of different statuses of member states, could turn the EU into an even more innovative, supranational alliance than it is today. In other words, Britain’s exit should be viewed not as a tragedy but as an opportunity for the formation of genuinely new European federalism, and this task could become central to the agenda for the democratic reconstruction of the European Union for the coming years.

Another important point is that Brexit might take place at a very appropriate moment from the “geopolitical” point of view. As a result of the reemergence of an aggressive and barely predictable Russia which is drawn to China and is flirting with authoritarian regimes around the world, the “wide Europe” project should be recognized as the failure it is. As Dominique Moisi (see: Moisi, Dominique. ‘Reinventing the West’ in: Foreign Affairs, 2003, November-December) stated at the time, at the end of the Cold War, we witnessed a transition from “a world with one West and two Europes, to a world with one Europe and two Wests”. However, today, the idea of “one Europe” does not seem so obvious. Rather, a new configuration is worth considering.

It may consist of three elements. Each of them relates to Europe in one way or another. That is, the very core of Europe - i.e. a continental EU with a stable European identity and two European “peripheries” – an Atlantic one (comprised of the United States and the United Kingdom) and a Eurasian one (comprised of Russia and countries fanatical about “statism” and authoritarianism). Such a re-composition will not only clearly distinguish between the zones of “modern” and “post-modern” politics, as Robert Cooper called it (see: Cooper, Robert. The Breaking of Nations: Order and Chaos in the Twenty-First Century, London: Atlantic Books, 2003), but will also most probably give new impetus to the European self-identity, since everywhere and at all times its most effective tool has been the juxtaposition of itself to the “other”. Europe is too closely connected with both America and Russia historically, culturally, and mentally. Hence, clearly separating itself from them cannot help but trigger a powerful wave of rethinking itself. Finally, as regards security and defense policy, migration and many other spheres (but not the economic sphere, of course), Europe would find it useful to understand itself for what it is: an islet of perfect social forms and not a role model in the likeness of which the rest of the world can be rebuilt.

Both Britain’s withdrawal to the Atlantic camp and Russia’s insanity will shape Europe for many decades to come. And, in my opinion, it would be wise to spend this time not on moaning about the untimely “drowned ones” but on  rethinking Europe’s mission, its structure and the challenges the European Union is facing today. It shouldn’t hold back those wanting to leave: they have every right to do so and limiting the freedom of these nations to any extent would mean compromising one’s own freedom…

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