EU policymakers and officials are returning to their desks with a spring in their step. This summer has seen the ‘Brexit effect’ quietly gathering momentum, so much so that it’s shaping into one of the most spectacular own-goals of European history, on a par with Germany’s Third Reich or the Russian Revolution, writes Giles Merritt.
Giles Merritt is Founder and Chairman of Friends of Europe. This opinion piece was first published on the Friends of Europe website. He is also the author of a recent book ‘Slippery Slope; Brexit and Europe’s Troubled Future’ (Oxford University Press).
Thanks to Brexit, the value of the European project is now coming into full view. For the average European, the technical details of economic integration have been invisible to the naked eye. But now, with Brexit under way, the European Union’s many virtues are being laid bare for all to see.
When UK voters narrowly opted to leave the EU, the nation’s triumphant ‘Brexiteers’ expected other member states to follow their lead. And Eurosceptics elsewhere forecast that Britain’s departure would be the catalyst for developments that would shake the EU to its foundations.
It wasn’t only populist politicians who saw Brexit as the dislodged boulder that would trigger an avalanche. Brussels was itself on tenterhooks amid warnings of a ‘crisis of confidence’ in the EU and all it stands for.
These anxieties persisted in varying degrees throughout the winter and were dispelled only when the UK government, after much shilly-shallying, triggered the Article 50 leaving procedure in late March. Once the British had embarked on the tortuous process of negotiating their departure, the disadvantages of leaving quickly became apparent.
The problem familiar to all in Brussels, or to those who work in some EU-related capacity, is that the complexity of European regulations and the opacity of decision-taking tend to obscure for the general public the benefits of common rules. The European Commission’s communications skills are often blamed, but inadequate as they are it is also fair to say that explaining the EU’s daily diet of technical standards has proved almost impossible.
Bizarrely, the UK government is performing exactly that feat. David Davis, the senior cabinet minister heading its negotiating team and long a vociferous Brexiteer, has had to backtrack on a lengthening list of issues.
The most significant climb-down has been London’s grudging acceptance that EU law, and thus the rulings of the European Court of Justice, will continue to hold sway in Britain.
That concession looks set to be followed in many other areas. Prime Minister Theresa May’s government had previously been adamant about cutting connections and ‘taking back control’, yet on key questions like electronic data regulation and privacy the UK has advanced suggestions for maintaining links with Brussels.
Contrasting with May’s earlier ‘Brexit means Brexit’ stance, the proposal states: “This would allow us to work more closely with the EU, providing continuity and certainty for business, allowing public authorities, including law enforcement authorities, to continue their close cooperation.”
Where the UK’s belated internal debate on EU membership will end is anyone’s guess. The battle has yet to be resolved between business and the hardline Brexiteers over whether to be inside or outside the single market and the customs union, but the spectre of trade disruption, corporate disinvestment and serious economic damage is shifting the opinion polls. Meanwhile, EU-27 objections to British attempts at ‘cherry picking’ are hardening.
Two important conclusions can be drawn.
The first is that, along with ticking off the EU’s virtues item by item, the negotiations with the UK are demonstrating the sheer power of the EU. For a decade it had appeared flabby, struggling ineffectually with the eurozone’s difficulties and then with the migrant crisis. Now, the Brexit process is revealing the EU’s solidarity and its worth. It’s a lesson that isn’t wasted on the watching world.
The second conclusion is that the EU must not rest on its laurels. Rather than allowing Brexit to dominate its agenda, the EU should press ahead at full speed with creating a genuine foreign and security policy, at long last completing the single market and tackling the eurozone reforms needed to breathe life back into the European economy.