Two-and-a-half months on from June’s shock-to-the-system Brexit vote, the future of Britain’s international relations looks increasingly murky. As Britain has taken the plunge in naming itself the first nation to withdraw from the European Union, those in Brussels are sure to be feeling the pressure. The Netherlands, Austria and Denmark are fast lining up their Brexit sequels, nations which, if withdrawn, could hugely question the existence and longevity of the EU.
With huge levels of disregard for the political class, European citizens’ guilty pleasure love affairs with the tidal wave of populism is out to damage the European Union. As global issues with refugees and the economy continue to draw on, and as populists turn to outspoken and sometimes rather bigoted politics, the European Union is now seen as something of a burden rather than a beneficial pool of traders and individuals with which to co-operate on the most grave of common problems.
Yesterday, Brexit captain Boris Johnson declared Vote Leave’s £350m EU savings promise simply impractical. Today, Brexit minister David Davis signalled that turbulent negotiations could result in WTO trading tariffs for Britain. Recent reports have also suggested that British wages are shrinking, that the economy is lagging, and that prices are plummeting. Theresa May has for weeks proclaimed that “Brexit means Brexit”, but exactly how her government plans to implement the British people’s decision is yet to be seen.
The dire facet of Britain’s vote to leave the EU is that most of the answers are yet to come. The UK government’s discussions with the European Union’s officials are likely to be rocky. The ball should be in the EU’s court, however. In the weeks running up to the June referendum, figures in Brussels were adamant that Britain would have to play by the rules. Article 50 would be implemented immediately, and Britain would not be able to question the EU’s agenda. Fearing a mass exodus from the EU could hugely damage the stability of the global economy and its political sphere.
It seems that this has instead pushed the EU to be softer towards more Eurosceptic states, hoping that granting hostile states all of their wishes will keep them quiet. But this approach is mindless. It will surely only boost Euroscepticism, further fracture the already fragile European Union, and truly extinguish any re-ignitable coals. The European Union acceptance of such paralysing disregard for itself is vacuous, and will make the entire continent brittle.
Brexit just cannot be dealt with such laxity, and the EU cannot allow itself to be walked over by arrogant populists. But it seems that European leaders have lost confidence, prepared to watch the EU crumble. British Prime Minister Theresa May several weeks ago travelled to Germany in order to speak with Chancellor Angela Merkel regarding Britain’s conditions for EU abandonment. After weeks of stubbornness from EU states, she did in fact return with success. May had managed to convince the formidable EU ‘leader’ that Britain would need more time before kick-starting the leave process, and that talks would not commence in 2016. Talks of a similar nature held with French President Francois Hollande resulted in a more relaxed approach towards the need for Dover-Calais border checks, and that free movement would suddenly be up for discussion.
The EU’s decision to warm to the requests of Brexit Britain are pig-headed, however, and are nothing short of political suicide. Allowing member states to slide out of what could still be a successful union – albeit after considerable reform – will destroy the chances of dealing with global problems easily. Our fingers will grow green with the rusty Euro, and our national outlooks will be increasingly confined.
Most importantly, pandering to the finger clicking of Britain will degrade the EU and any chances of future reform. If EU leaders continue to allow the UK’s government to cherry-pick its way through Brexit, more European nations will leave the seemingly age-old EU. Reform can only be done through being harsh with Britain, thus preventing further votes to leave, and allowing existing member states to piece together a more coherent and functional EU.
Britain has always negotiated its way through EU relations, the kind of picky politics the EU ought to thwart. French President Mitterrand was, in the earlier days, sceptical of the UK’s membership as a decoy for American interests. It is surely no secret that, with just as energised Atlanticism over recent years, Britain still does not act in this way. Britain’s strong disdain for the Eurozone system, its naughty school boy-like rebellions against the rulings of the European Court of Justice, and its excruciatingly particular agreements regarding border controls have shown that Britain has modified the politics of the EU, just to get the economic benefits. Britain regularly shuns the political protocol of the EU, seen as a burden on its individualist agenda. The very fact that British financiers pleaded for votes to remain shows how much European co-operation is at the fore of British relations with the EU.
So if Britain has succeeded in constantly questioning and editing the European Union’s agenda in Britain over recent years, what is there to say that it won’t this time? For Theresa May’s government has already started. It is precisely this approach that the EU must beware. Britain’s keenness to shift Brexit in its favour, to try and argue its way back in, to try and secure the economic privileges without the political overheads is something incredibly destructive. Unless the European Union clamps down on the picking and choosing of states such as Britain, enforcing true commitment to the European cause, it will have to watch itself die.
Currently, the EU can be easily pushed over. Other nations, just like the UK has done, will question the status quo and leave what could still be a successful union. A union like that of the EU should be a patchwork of states which share common values and goals, and if every nation requests a bespoke and considerably tenuous relationship, then the EU will have little chance of surviving. Perhaps Theresa May is planning a grand post-Brexit European reform which will one-up her predecessor, David Cameron, and transform the EU back into the pre-1998 economic union, but adding in the other components most helpful to Britain. Whilst proclaiming support for the pro-EU campaign, maybe her motive is simply one of self interest. Such a master plan would almost certainly cement her career’s foundations and boost her popularity within Britain. Perhaps in no more than a year’s time, states like The Netherlands, Austria, and Denmark will be doing the same, and the current form of the EU will be a thing of the past.
Watching President Hollande and Chancellor Merkel benignly allow the UK to call the shots over Brexit makes for painful watching. Those at the helm of the EU can now either be firm with the UK, pressing on with reform and stamping out Euroscepticism, or let states like the UK off with calling the shots and watching the next version of Brexit kill the EU once and for all.
The EU now has the chance to repair itself, arming itself against the next artillery fire from the new populists. The way forward is through pushing the UK out if it insists on questioning the EU’s already determined framework. Reform must then be on the table, and fast. If the EU is to survive, and have any chance of remaining an authoritative and reputable force for political and economic decision making, it must restore order and assert its authority.