Brexit: A very British drama, a very European challenge

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The EU still makes sense in our globalised world. It just needs to regain its bearings. [Shutterstock]

We must not fall prey to the idea that Brexit is the start of an “unravelling” of the EU, write Enrico Letta, Yves Bertoncini and other members of the Jacques Delors Institute.

Enrico Letta is president of the Jacques Delors Institute and Dean of the Paris School of International Affairs (PSIA); Yves Bertoncini is director of Delors; and the other members serve on its board of directors: Josep Borrell-Fontelles, Jean-Louis Bourlanges, Laurent Cohen-Tanugi, Pavel Fischer, Nicole Gnesotto and Riccardo Perissich.

If Brexit was an earthquake for the EU, it was triggered by the seismic fault line that has been a feature of relations between the United Kingdom and “Europe” from the outset. Numerous cyclical and circumstantial factors contributed to the outcome of the referendum, including rejection of the political and financial elites in London and power struggles within the Conservative Party.

But the outcome also reflects the UK’s specific historical and geographical characteristics linked in particular to its insular nature, its imperial past, a more global economic gaze and its brave stand against Nazism, which explains why older voters are not as “pro-European” as elsewhere. Nor should we too rapidly overlook the crass and unrelenting Europhobic nature of the British tabloid press, which also played a key role in the outcome of the vote.

The campaign was naturally followed by the other peoples of the EU, who sometimes got the feeling that they were “voting by proxy”. The campaign focused on the issues which will continue to lie at the heart of the debate in most EU countries as well as in Brussels, such as the free movement of people and workers and the distribution and exercise of powers between the EU and its member states.

However, it is important that we render unto Shakespeare that which is Shakespeare’s: on the one hand, in order to explain the specific features unique to the 23 June vote; and on the other hand to set out on the path of divorce embraced by the British people in order to then define the framework of a new partnership between the UK and the EU.

Indeed, the Union is not a “prison of peoples”: the British are free to leave it if a majority of them wish to do so, and it is within a framework of strict respect for the popular will that the actions of the London authorities and the EU member states and citizens need to be developed from now on.

The Brexit earthquake is going to spawn aftershocks in other European countries, sparking calls for national referendums on EU membership. This predilection for plebiscites is frequently evinced by minority political forces incapable of getting into power through the normal channels of representative democracy. It’s up to them to win the next election in order to call a referendum, be it on the EU or on a whole host of other issues.

As we look across the Channel, we should take care not to confuse Euroscepticism, in other words (often contradictory) criticism of the EU and the deterioration of its image, with Europhobia, which is the will to leave the EU.

Nor should we forget that, for many of its member states, leaving the EU would also mean leaving the euro and Schengen areas, and that that dual break would have far weightier consequences than Britain’s “simple” exit, which nevertheless appears to be sufficiently destabilising for the UK.

Brexit is primarily an additional political challenge for the EU, which needs to immediately recognise the seriousness of the crisis gripping it and to act with ever greater vigour. With all the respect that we owe our British friends who have opted to go it alone, the national and European authorities now need to focus on other pressing challenges, by stressing why we are stronger together in this globalised world.

They need to lay additional emphasis on the fact that Europeans share a common will to reconcile economic efficiency with social cohesion and environmental safeguards in a pluralistic framework. And they need to reach decisions that translate this unique will for a balance not found anywhere else in the world into concrete action, in particular by supporting growth and employment – for instance through the launch of a major new investment plan expanding on the existing Juncker Plan.

They need to make it clear that “strength lies in unity” at times when history takes a darker turn: Islamist terrorism, chaos in Syria and in Libya, chaotic migratory movements and Russian aggressiveness to unbridled finance, energy dependence, climate change and China’s thirst for power. All of these are threats and challenges where the EU must allow us to better shape our own fate by sharing our sovereignties, by building upon the welcome establishment of a European border guard corps.

The European and national authorities need to respond to the identity concerns voiced by EU citizens, who will account for 6% of the world’s population after Brexit and who benefit from international economic and cultural liberalisation on a highly uneven basis – the launch of an “Erasmus Pro” programme for apprentices would be of keen symbolic importance in this connection.

In short, they need to lead their peoples into a new world which is at once bursting with opportunities but also fraught with threats, and in which Europe is in a less and less central position. This presupposes speaking to the hearts and minds of Europe’s citizens, responding to their hopes and fears without downgrading them to the level of mere consumers and taxpayers. Initiatives designed to strengthen our collective security would beneficially combine operational urgency and the emotional dimension, for instance through the creation of a European counter-terrorism prosecutor’s office.

The EU does not only need firemen, summoned by the Brexit to fight the blaze of a new crisis. Its next step forward requires the mobilisation of architects and of prophets capable of restoring a compass and a soul to this unparalleled Union, forged in post-war grief but still making perfect sense in a globalised world.

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