After Brexit, what is Europe?

A bronze sculpture that symbolizes a unifying Europe
Brussels: The “Europe,” bronze sculpture by Belgian artist May Claerhout on display outside the European Parliament in Brussels (source: dpa)

When in June 2016 the United Kingdom decided to leave the European Union, the nation made a historic choice to take back control of its own destiny. It has refused to continue handing it over to a bureaucracy in Brussels, which over the years has usurped for itself – against the rising tide of public opinion – jurisdiction in areas where it has had none.

The overall cost of this exit by our neighbors across the Channel in the financial, economic, political and cultural terms has yet to be measured. However, we can already see that the immediate apocalypse prophesied by financial analysts has not taken place. Reality appears to be dealing, at this stage at least, a trouncing blow to doomsayers.

Economic surprise

In August 2016 alone, the PMI manufacturing index (industrial activity) shot up by 5 points in the UK, which is a historic record and indicates that industry is hiring. The UK has become competitive again, thanks to a devaluation of the pound sterling. Not one single financial institution has yet left the City and dominant opinion holds that Brexit is not going to weaken the financial heart of the UK. Retail sales, for their part, rose in July by 1.4 percent, a solid increase which shows that consumers have not panicked after the referendum.

Elsewhere, new British Prime Minister Theresa May has warned that she was not going to give notice to Brussels of the British wish to leave the EU until next year, so her government has time to prepare for the negotiations. This departure therefore promises to be done in an organized fashion – at least on the British side. It is London that will control the timetable.

The UK, a nation on the forefront of globalization, no longer sees this process as advancing under Brussels’ aegis

Many factors remain unclear, of course. We do not know if tariff barriers to the European common market will return for the British or not; if the City will be able to continue working as it has in the past; or if freedom of movement will soon be restricted between the UK and the continent. This means that the Brexit’s biggest question marks are on the continental side.

Key question

The EU can hardly avoid asking itself some hard questions, not as much on its future as on its real identity. Even though the British were not among its founding members (France’s President General Charles de Gaulle blocked the UK’s entry into the organization for a long time), and their country never adopted the single currency, Brexit represents an act of defiance that resonates with a great many EU citizens. They are sick and tired of the centralized monster that attempts to regulate from Brussels every detail of their daily lives.

That is why an in-depth reform of the EU is needed now more than ever. But this requires reversing the current thinking. There is a need to return to pragmatism. There is a need to abandon once and for all the ideological vision of Europe constructed by men like Jacques Delors, who spread the Jacobite virus across the entire continent. The EU’s founders were in fact men dedicated to the values of subsidiarity and working from the bottom up. Europe’s strengths, due to its history, its geography and its philosophy, derive from its diversity – the differences. These strengths complement each other and feed each other in shared projects that have their roots in specific needs, not ideologies, and are valid at a given moment in time.

Do we need to remind people of the brilliant success of the Airbus jetliners or Ariane space rockets, cutting-edge technological projects created through the joint will of independent European nations, which did not require the flourishing European Commission technocracy? What the EU truly needs is a hundred such projects, but nowadays the community is more centralized than the United States. And it is centralized in a perversely counterproductive fashion. On a multilateral level, European defense does not exist; it is only through bilateral agreements, such as the one signed by France and the UK in St. Malo, that the two national armies are able to work together. European common security is falling apart. European economies clash and trip over each other, hamstrung by a single currency that is divorced from the member countries’ differing fundamentals.

Back to basics

The concept of an integrated Europe needs a restart. But do EU leaders really believe they will achieve this goal by, for example, continuing to ignore the electorates, taking a second vote when the first one did not yield the desired answer, or sometimes, as with the Treaty of Lisbon, just plainly ignoring those votes?

The Europe the founding fathers dreamed up was meant to entrench a lasting peace on the continent. That noble goal seems to have been accomplished: peace is here, anchored in the hearts of the Europeans. They know that the threat no longer comes from the country next door. It is, paradoxically, both further away and closer to home at the same time. Today’s Europe, which has nearly abolished its internal borders and does a startlingly poor job defending its external ones, has nonetheless allowed for the rising of other demarcations, invisible but real, smack within it. These are social fences, with the increase in economic inequality and increasingly impregnable barriers between ethnic and religious communities. The influx of migrants allowed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, it is worth noting, promises to address the needs of large companies, but not those of the people who are living through a real identity crisis.

Wake-up call

This crisis is also actually one of Brexit’s key drivers – the reason why the Britons opted for taking back control of their borders and their laws. It is not that surprising that the UK, a nation on the forefront of globalization, no longer sees this process as advancing under Brussels’ aegis.

The UK’s defection is worrying for the European project, but the continental elites would be wrong to respond to it, as they tend to, with more attempts to centralize. Instead, power needs to be returned to the base, to the communities and the member nations. They ought to be given a free hand to look for solutions and to experiment drawing on local initiatives, to advance projects based on voluntary work – in a word, to prove that Europe is indeed a land of free people.

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