Brexit: an opportunity to be exploited

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

If the UK leaves, it would be unacceptable to allow what is left of it to cherry-pick what is left of a crumbling EU cake. [Javier Micora/Flickr]

As the referendum looms large on the horizon, there are two ways of facing the threat of Brexit: despondency or trying to make something positive out of the situation, writes Robert Cox.

Robert Cox was senior advisor to the European Community Humanitarian Office (1993-1998) and former European Commission Representative to Turkey. He is now on the Friends of Europe board of trustees.

Brexit, the final act of British imperial decline, is increasingly on the cards. The phantom issues of migration and sovereignty are the issues likely to tip the balance.  In the referendum arena the devils in the Leave corner have so far sung the better tunes. But this could also provide a heaven-sent opportunity. 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 is talk of EU governments privately discussing what to do if the British vote out. Now is the time when, 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 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 will only be the beginning of their retreat from the EU. A bad-tempered Article 50 negotiation process for withdrawal will last a notional two years.

As Gus O’Donnell, the former head of the UK’s civil service, has pointed out, this is most likely to run well beyond that deadline. Jean-Claude Piris, former Council legal chief, talks of ten years. Over this time, there is a risk that other EU member states will cast their own wish-lists 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.

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 and Benelux and springs readily to mind as the starting point. But who else? 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. It is hard to see it left out of such a hard core.

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 Paris and Madrid as a powerful component of such a multi-dimensional Europe. In Scandinavia and the Baltics many may similarly see merit in a reinforced mutual grouping. The Višegrad group has already developed a degree of common purpose along such lines. Austria could well come to feel more at home in that sphere.

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 promoted 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, however, help save the Euro by generating a double-status Eurozone. The present system’s corset cannot overcome the Eurozone’s fundamental flaw of leaving weaker members no option to 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 of concentric circles of membership and degree of commitment will be easy. But an alternative prospect is that of an uncontrolled slide into anarchic bit-solutions, even more unmanageable than the present set-up, and indigestible for Europe’s citizens.

In reconstructing the EU’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 central core in due course; the continued willingness of the core members to fund the development of the less prosperous (in their own interest); selling a multi-dimensional package so there are no triumphant winners and vanquished losers; and the key 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 –Britain or others – 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 and explain its purpose and functions. It could also provide less opportunity for Putin’s Russia to sow mischief or havoc in European 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.