Feb 3rd 2020

Why Brexit has not and will not trigger EU disintegration

by Douglas Webber

 

Douglas Webber is Professor of Political Science at INSEAD

 

Brexit could radically change the UK. Both Scottish independence and Northern Ireland breaking away from Britain are conceivable and Boris Johnson’s government has a lot on his plate when it comes to negotiating the country’s future relationship with the EU, all the while delivering on the promised benefits of independence.

For the EU, Brexit marks more of a return to business as usual. The prospective fallout of Brexit will be rather less far-reaching or dramatic. At the time of the 2016 referendum, there were widespread fears that Brexit would unleash a contagion effect among other member states that could destroy the EU.

Opinion surveys conducted at this time suggested that the EU had become extremely unpopular among citizens in many other member states and that, if they had also staged referendums on whether to leave the EU, the outcomes in some of them – notably in two of the biggest pioneer states, France and Italy – would have been very close.

Three and a half years on, these fears have proved to be unfounded. Rather, as the citizens of the remaining 27 states have observed the destabilising impact that the referendum decision has had on British politics, they have been inoculated against the desire to secede from the EU. Outside the UK, national-populist parties have moderated their anti-EU rhetoric and nowadays profess to want to change the EU from within instead of destroying it.

How lasting this inoculation effect proves to be depends to some extent on how, as it comes to be executed, Brexit affects the British economy, society and politics. The greater the success of Brexit, as perceived by citizens and elites in the remaining member states, the more likely it is that this inoculation effect of Brexit will wear off.

But the attractiveness of secession from the EU is not shaped only by the perceived impact of Brexit, before and after its execution, but also by how well or badly the EU manages the major issues that confront it. The 2016 UK referendum took place in the shadow of the eurozone and refugee crises, when the popularity of the EU among its citizens had reached its nadir. Since then, these crises have been contained and the EU’s popularity has recovered.

Stable for now

While the EU has stabilised these crises, it has failed to create the right instruments to achieve a lasting resolution of either of them. If they flare up again, as is likely, or if new crises should break out, anti-European sentiment will resurge and secession from the EU may return to the political agenda in some member states.

The most likely candidates would probably then be larger member states whose citizens feel less dependent on the EU for their economic and physical security. The states that did not fare well in the refugee or eurozone crisis and where the EU is already politically contested. Hence France and, above all, Italy.

Meanwhile, the general political orientation and day-to-day functioning of the EU will not be much affected by Brexit, either negatively or positively. A member of neither the euro nor the Schengen zone, the UK did not belong to the EU’s core mechanisms.

In an earlier era, the UK was the co-architect of important EU initiatives such as the single market, Eastern enlargement and security and defence policy. But by the time of the Brexit referendum it had relegated itself to the EU’s margins. In recent times no other EU member state regarded the UK as its most important partner in the EU. For 18 of the 27 other member states, this was Germany, for three it was France.

For sure, some member states – those closest to the UK in their overall political orientation, such as the Netherlands and the Scandinavian members, or former British colonies, such as Malta and Cyprus – will miss the UK more than others. But the post-Brexit EU is unlikely to change significantly. And the northwestern European member states have organised themselves into a new coalition akin to the old Hanseatic League to fill the vacuum left by the UK on economic and fiscal issues.

Deep rifts remain

It would be misplaced to think that the UK’s secession will make the EU more cohesive, however. The eurozone and migration crises, in neither of which the UK was a protagonist, showed how deep the political rifts are – north-south and east-west – that can divide the remaining 27 member states.

As in the past, how effectively such crises are mediated and how well the EU survives them will depend on the willingness and capacity of its key member states – Germany and France – to provide the other members with leadership that these can accept and that holds the EU together.

Already during the crises of the last decade, including Brexit, the French and German governments were not always willing or able to provide such leadership. Shifting domestic political constellations in both Paris and Berlin could curtail this even further. Next year’s German parliamentary elections and the next French presidential election in 2022 will both be moments to watch.

In one key respect, the EU will never be the same again after Brexit. The teleological notion of “ever closer union” and that the process of European integration is irreversible (dear to many scholars and champions of European integration) has been decisively refuted. No one can assume safely that history has had its last word on how European states organise their relations with each other.

 

Douglas Webber, Professor of Political Science, INSEAD

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Apr 16th 2021
EXTRACT: "When we examined the development of nations worldwide since 1820, we found that among rich Western countries like the United States, the Netherlands and France, improvements in income, education, safety and health tracked or even outpaced rising gross domestic product for over a century. But in the 1950s, even as economic growth accelerated after World War II, well-being in these countries lagged.
Apr 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Some presidents indulge in the “Mount Rushmore syndrome” making an obvious effort to achieve greatness. Normally soft-spoken and apparently modest Biden is making his own bid for immortality."
Apr 9th 2021
EXTRACT: "New ways of thinking about the role of government are as important as new priorities. Many commentators have framed Biden’s infrastructure plan as a return to big government. But the package is spread over eight years, will raise public spending by only one percentage point of GDP, and is projected to pay for itself eventually. A boost in public investment in infrastructure, the green transition, and job creation is long overdue."
Apr 7th 2021
EXTRACT: " One can, and perhaps should, take the optimistic view that moral panics in the US blow over; reason will once again prevail. It could be that the Biden era will take the sting out of Trumpism, and the tolerance for which American intellectual life has often been admired will be reinvigorated. This might even happen while the noxious effects of American influence still rage in other countries. For the sake of America and the world, one can only hope it happens soon.  "
Mar 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "By refusing (despite having some good reasons) to end electoral gerrymandering, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., has directly enabled the paralyzing hyper-partisanship that reached its nadir during Donald Trump’s presidency. By striking down all limits on corporate spending on political campaigns in the infamous 2010 Citizens United decision, he has helped to entrench dark money in US politics. And by gutting the 1965 Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder, Roberts has facilitated the racist voter-suppression tactics now being pursued in many Republican-controlled states."
Mar 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "the UK’s tough choices accumulate, and the problems lurking around the corner look menacing. Britain will have to make the best of Brexit. But it will be a long, hard struggle, all the more so with an evasive fabulist in charge."
Mar 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "Over the years, the approach of most American policymakers toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been Israel-centric with near total disregard for the suffering endured by the Palestinian people. The architects of policy in successive US administrations have discussed the conflict as if the fate of only one party (Israel) really mattered. Israelis were treated as full human beings with hopes and fears, while Palestinians were reduced to a problem that needed to be solved so that Israelis could live in peace and security.  ..... It is not just that Israelis and Palestinians haven’t been viewed with an equal measure of concern. It’s worse than that. It appears that Palestinians were judged as less ​human than Israelis, and were, therefore, not entitled to make demands to have their rights recognized and protected."
Mar 8th 2021
EXTRACTS: "XThere’s a global shortage in semiconductors, and it’s becoming increasingly serious." ...... "The automotive sector has been worst affected by the drought, in an era where microchips now form the backbone of most cars. Ford is predicting a 20% slump in production and Tesla shut down its model 3 assembly line for two weeks. In the UK, Honda was forced to temporarily shut its plant as well." ..... " As much as 70% of the world’s semiconductors are manufactured by just two companies, Taiwan Semiconductor (TSMC) and Samsung."
Mar 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Back in 1992, Lawrence H. Summers, then the chief economist at the World Bank, and I warned that pushing the US Federal Reserve’s annual inflation target down from 4% to 2% risked causing big problems. Not only was the 4% target not producing any discontent, but a 2% target would increase the risk of the Fed’s interest-rate policy hitting the zero lower bound. Our objections went unheeded. Fed Chair Alan Greenspan reduced the inflation target to 2%, and we have been paying for it ever since. I have long thought that many of our economic problems would go away if we could rejigger asset markets in such a way as to make a 5% federal funds rate consistent with full employment in the late stage of a business cycle."
Mar 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "Under these conditions, the Fed is probably worried that markets will instantly crash if it takes away the punch bowl. And with the increase in public and private debt preventing the eventual monetary normalization, the likelihood of stagflation in the medium term – and a hard landing for asset markets and economies – continues to increase."
Mar 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Massive fiscal and monetary stimulus programs in the United States and other advanced economies are fueling a raging debate about whether higher inflation could be just around the corner. Ten-year US Treasury yields and mortgage rates are already climbing in anticipation that the US Federal Reserve – the de facto global central bank – will be forced to hike rates, potentially bursting asset-price bubbles around the world. But while markets are probably overstating short-term inflation risks for 2021, they do not yet fully appreciate the longer-term dangers."
Feb 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "To be sure, calls to “build back better” from the pandemic imply some awareness of the need for systemic change. But the transformation we need extends beyond constructing modern infrastructure or unlocking private investment in any one country. We need to re-orient – indeed, re-invent – global politics, so that countries can cooperate far more effectively in creating a better world."
Feb 23rd 2021
EXTRACT: "So, notwithstanding the predictable release of pent-up demand for consumer durables, face-to-face services show clear evidence – in terms of both consumer demand and employment – of permanent scarring. Consequently, with the snapback of pent-up demand for durables nearing its point of exhaustion, the recovery of the post-pandemic US economy is likely to fall well short of vaccine development’s “warp speed.” "
Feb 20th 2021
EXTRACT: "Human rights abuses under Erdogan are beyond the pale of inhumanity and moral decadence. The list of Erdogan’s violations and cruelty is too long to numerate. The detention and horrifying torture of thousands of innocent people for months and at times for years, without being charged, is hard to fathom. Many prisoners are left languishing in dark cells, often in solitary confinement. The detention of tens of thousands of men and hundreds of women, many with their children, especially following the 2016 failed coup, has become common. It is calculated to inflict horrendous pain and suffering to bring the prisoners to the breaking point, so that they confess to crimes they have never committed."
Feb 20th 2021
Courtyard of the Amsterdam Stock Exchange, circa 1670, (Job Adriaenszoon Berckheyde).
Feb 12th 2021
EXTRACT: "Global regulators will no doubt be concerned about a potential volatility spillover from digital asset prices into traditional capital markets. They may not permit what could quickly amount to effective proxy approval by the back door for companies holding large proportions of a volatile asset on their balance sheets."
Feb 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Since Russians began protesting opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s imprisonment, the security forces have apparently had carte blanche to arrest demonstrators – and they have done so by the thousands. If Russians so much as honk their car horns in solidarity with the protesters, they risk personal repercussions. The official response to the protests goes beyond the Kremlin’s past repression. It is war."
Feb 6th 2021
EXTRACT: ".......like Biden, Roosevelt was certainly no revolutionary. His task was to save American capitalism. He was a repairer, a fixer. The New Deal was achieved not because of Roosevelt’s genius or heroism, but because enough people trusted him to act in good faith. That is precisely what people are expecting from Biden, too. He must save US democracy from the ravages of a political crisis. To do so, he must reestablish trust in the system. He has promised to make his country less polarized, and to restore civility and truth to political discourse. In this endeavor, his lack of charisma may turn out to be his greatest strength. For all that he lacks in grandeur, he makes up for by exuding an air of decency."
Feb 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "Europe must not lose sight of the long game, which inevitably will center on China, not Russia or relations with post-Brexit Britain. China is already establishing a presence in Iran, and demonstrating that it has the capital, know-how, and technology to project power and influence beyond its borders. Should it succeed in turning the Belt and Road Initiative into a line of geopolitical stepping-stones, it might soon emerge at Europe’s southeastern border in a form that no one in the EU foresaw."
Jan 29th 2021
EXTRACT: "One sign of this change is that, unlike all recent Democratic administrations, Biden’s hasn’t paid obeisance to Wall Street by giving bankers top jobs. The new Secretary of the Treasury, Janet Yellen, is a former Federal Reserve chair and academic who has made it clear that she understands the country’s pressing social needs. Moreover, Biden consulted Warren on her economic views, and has named a former Warren adviser as Yellen’s deputy. Yellen’s appointment demonstrates that Biden shares the insight that enabled Trump’s rise: that too many Americans feel that they cannot get a fair share. "