Brexit is an opportunity to be exploited


Picture of Robert Cox
Robert Cox

Senior Advisor to the European Community Humanitarian Office (1993-1998) and former European Commission Representative to Turkey

Robert Cox is Trustee of Friends of Europe and former European Commission Representative to Turkey

Brexit, the final act of British imperial decline, is increasingly inevitable, but could also present us with an opportunity. In the referendum arena, the devils in the ‘leave’ corner have so far sung the better tunes, with the perceived migration ogre only becoming more fearsome with time. The frankly zany Dutch referendum result will probably encourage the ‘exiters’ despite its low turnout on an apparently irrelevant issue. A tight referendum result either way, including the possibility of an English vote to leave and a Scottish vote to stay, will keep the issue and its disruptive power very much alive. There are two ways of facing this: despondency or trying to make something positive of it.

Instead of wringing our hands, we should direct our energies to exploring what can usefully be reconstructed from this impending mess. There may be a window of opportunity here to explore solutions to the other major problems and imbalances bedevilling the current unwieldy European Union of 28 member states.

As they toss arguments back and forth, the British hardly seem aware of the fact that the aftermath of the referendum on 23rd June will only be the beginning of their retreat from the Union. A bad-tempered Article 50 negotiation process for withdrawal will last a notional two years. As Gus O’Donnell, the former head of Britain’s civil service, has pointed out, this is most likely to run well beyond that deadline. Over this time, there is a risk that other EU member states will cast more their own wish-lists items into the process, making it even muddier if not deadlocked. In any case, the whole process will lurch into motion just as very fractious elections gather momentum in France and Germany. Neither of these major EU members will be in any mood to appease the British or any other troublemakers.

Moving towards the multi-dimensional Europe could save the euro

Brexit must not be allowed to monopolise the EU’s already overloaded agenda. The Article 50 negotiation must instead be put in its rightful place, within a serious debate about recasting the EU into a reformed, multi-speed or multi-dimensional construction. A new hard core of Germany, Benelux and Austria springs readily to mind as the starting point. The excluded will scream – France, Italy and Spain will be the first recalcitrants. France’s entrenched conservatisms generate little confidence for the country’s future. But if Matteo Renzi’s reform programme sticks, Italy could be a serious contender rather than a Mediterranean loose cannon. Or Rome could find merit in common cause with Madrid, in spite, or indeed because, of the Catalan secession threat. Many in Scandinavia and the Baltics may similarly see the benefit of a reinforced mutual grouping. The Višegrad group has already developed a degree of common purpose along such lines. Unacceptable would be that the whole process ends up as a damage control mechanism for giving Britain – or what’s left of it – a soft option in some form of splendid isolation while it picks the cherries off a crumbling EU cake.

An alternative scenario kicked around in some quarters sees the eurozone as the hard core. But this idea fails to acknowledge the serious, innate imbalances of the eurozone. Moving towards the multi-dimensional Europe could save the euro by including a double-status eurozone. The present system’s corset cannot overcome the eurozone’s fundamental flaw of weaker members having no option to devalue and adopt exchange and interest rates suitable to their conditions.

Not for a moment can one pretend that engineering any transformation towards a multi-speed Europe will be easy. But the very real prospect of an uncontrolled slide into anarchic bit-solutions makes this well worth the effort.

Europe’s security vulnerability is too serious a matter for Britain to use it as a bargaining chip

In reconstructing the European Union’s architecture, so much will depend on five things: identifying what remains shared, especially in the single market; setting out the provisions for flexible evolution so the ‘excluded’ can join the hard core; the continued willingness of the core members to fund the development of the less prosperous; selling a multi-dimensional package so there are no triumphant winners and vanquished losers; the institutional arrangements and structures.

In the search and negotiation for a multi-dimensional solution, security and defence must constantly be kept in focus. Europe’s security vulnerability is too serious a matter for individual member states – namely Britain – to use it as a blackmail bargaining chip. It would be unwise to ignore American fatigue with NATO, whether Trump wins in Washington or not. Rather than floundering in a nasty divorce with the British, the EU will win more respect from its global partners if seen to be deliberately attempting to redefine its purpose and functions. It could also provide less opportunity for Putin’s Russia to sow mischief or havoc in its ranks.

The dynamic approach outlined above could yet provide an opportunity to set the European Project back on its feet. It could also do much to persuade Europe’s tired citizens that it still has something to offer them.

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