Does the rest of Europe actually care about Brexit?

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

The effects of the referendum, regardless of outcome, will be felt well beyond the UK's white cliffs of Dover. [Tobias van der Haar/Flickr]

Even though it is clear that the effect of Brexit would be felt hardest in the UK, it is fair to say that the effects would reverberate across the Channel too, writes Petros Fassoulas.

Petros Fassoulas is Secretary General of European Movement International.

There are some who think that without Britain, that awkward partner we picked up along the way, the EU would be able to march ahead towards a federalist utopia. Such analysis represents wishful thinking more than anything else and deliberately ignores some of the structural impediments the EU is currently facing.

Perhaps the UK’s resistance to further integration serves as a convenient fig leaf, but the fact remains that for far too long national political elites in most member states, even those with a strong integrationist backbone, have shied away from taking bold steps forward.

Reluctance has led to hesitation. Exhausted by multiple crises, under scrutiny from an electorate that does not see their prospects improving and under pressure from populist parties (on the right and left), national political elites seem to be stuck in the mud. Limited by their options at national level and unable (or reluctant) to pursue European solutions, they are going nowhere.

Fuelled by the above-mentioned factors, divisions within the European Council, which have often led to open conflicts among member states, have become more accentuated. It is these very divisions that are holding back the EU, not the UK’s dislike for straight bananas or high-voltage kettles.

Before casting Britain’s role in the EU in a negative light, one ought to be reminded of what the Brits bring to the table. Despite everything, Britain has made a considerable contribution to the EU’s development. It led the efforts for the establishment of the Single Market and advocated for the EU’s Eastern and Central European enlargement.

The UK has also been a champion of global trade deals, using its influence and network to advance the EU’s global footprint. Britain has been a stern advocate of open markets and competition and has provided the continent with its own global financial services centre.

Last but by no means least, Britain is the second biggest economy in the EU and one of the biggest in the world, with considerable military capability and diplomatic soft power.

Losing Britain would dent the EU’s ambitions and send the wrong message to the rest of the world. No alliance of nations, even one with supranational structures, can be considered successful if it loses one of its major members. Especially when the EU is facing its greatest ever challenges. The banking, economic and sovereign debt crises have put a strain on the EU, necessitating the re-engineering of its institutional structures and decision-making vehicles. The challenges posed by the arrival of hundreds of thousands of desperate refugees, fleeing war and hunger, have only come to conflate the problems we currently face.

The side effects of Brexit would be quite severe in economic, political and geopolitical terms. Losing a major economic player would reduce the EU’s economic power. It would also destabilise the transatlantic defence alliance and compromise Europe’s security as a result. At a time when the West needs to appear and act united, it would lead to a significant realignment of traditional alliances.

However, the most severe consequence will manifest itself in the political fallout. At a time when extreme nationalist and populist forces challenge the very basis of European integration and the foundations of liberal democracy, a victory for isolationist and xenophobic forces in Britain would only strengthen those voices of division and intolerance that have been growing louder across our continent in the past decade.

Brexit would be a major boost for anti-European parties across Europe and would only magnify calls for such referendums to be held elsewhere. Considering the current public mood across Europe and the political paralysis many mainstream parties are gripped by, nobody can predict which member state (or states) might be next.

Even if holding an EU membership referendum does not mean, by default, that the outcome will be negative, the last thing we need is a series of introverted and (if the debate in the UK is anything to go by) toxic referendums, diverting time, energy and resources away from the real challenges we face.

That realisation has been deeply embedded in the collective consciousness of decision-makers in capitals across our Union. It is why the only thing that has been more pronounced than EU leaders’ willingness to offer Mr Cameron a deal he can sell at home has been their thinly veiled warnings that, if the British people reject it, what they will get as a divorce settlement will be vastly worse.

What happens on 23 June is between the Brits and themselves. But the waves that a decision to leave the EU could conjure up would spread beyond Britain’s shores. The effects of that political tsunami would be felt far and wide and it is very hard to predict how acute the damage will be. But rest assured, there will be damage.

Today (14 June), European Movement International is holding an event entitled ‘Does Europe Care About Brexit’ which will bring together policy-makers and sectoral stakeholders to discuss the potential effects of Brexit on Europe as a whole.

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