Brexit: The Geopolitical Question
by Iveta Kazlauskaite (December 2, 2016)
Much of the debate after the Brexit focused on what the referendum will mean for the United Kingdom rather than for the EU. Yet, the geopolitical implications of the Brexit for the EU could be more serious than initially expected.
For years the United Kingdom has played a central role in Europe‘s security matters. As the UK joined the European Economic Community, as it then was, it strengthened Europe‘s position in the face of the threat stemming from the Soviet Union. It continued to play a key role in the collective security of Europe when the conflict in Ukraine erupted in 2014. The United Kingdom has been one of the most vocal in pushing the European Union towards imposing harsh sanctions against Russia. The tough stance taken by the UK against Russia had been strongly supported by the Baltic States, Poland and Sweden, which were primarily concerned about their national security. However, sanctions on Russia led to the division among member states of the EU. While Greece, Hungary and Italy called into question the continuation of sanctions, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has called sanctions to be phased out and France’s parliament passed a non-binding resolution to lift santions in April. Although the EU extended its sanctions for an additional six months, it will last until 31 January 2017. Hence, it is expected that the sanctions wil be lifted in 2017 and Brexit is claimed to cause this to happen sooner than it otherwise would. The UK has been consistently in favor of preserving sanctions, and with countries, such as Italy and France, preferring softer position, it is likely that without the UK no one will push for continuation of sanctions against Russia.
Among the consequences of Brexit, there is an increased fear about the break up of Britain. As Scotland favours EU membership, the country’s first minister announced that it is highly probable that the country will hold a second independence referendum by 2020 if UK leaves the single market. However, it could change the geopolitical situation not only of the UK, but also of the EU as the secession of Scotland would also intensify secessionist demands in other parts of Europe, such as Catalonia or Flanders. More importantly, after the vote for Brexit, there have been increasing calls from other EU member states to hold referendums. According to the Pew Research Center, the support for the EU in France has fallen the most, down to 38%. With the upcoming presidential election in France next year, Marine Le Pen, leader of the Front National, has said that if she wins the presidential election, she will hold a referendum on the country‘s membership of the EU within six months. In Germany, with the general elections to be held also in 2017, the rightwing populist party Alternative für Deutschland, which has gained increasing support, also called for a referendum to be held. Although in both France and Germany, people are in favor of remaining in the EU, the politicians have to be careful in tackling the growing euroscepticism.
If the British parliament decides to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty to start the separation process from the European Union, it would shake the balance of power in Europe and undermine the Union‘s external strength. UK is one of the leading military powers in the EU that is able to operate on a global scale and France is the only one that can match Britain‘s military power. Thus, the EU‘s ability to effectively deal with global challenges, whether it is the migrant crisis, international terrorism or Russia pursuing an “assertive foreign policy“, would be significantly reduced. Since such concerns seem to be well-grounded, Germany and France recently called the EU to deepen its military and security cooperation.
It is clear that things will never be the same after the Brexit and for the EU to successfully exist in the world, it has to rethink its role. As stated by European Council President Donald Tusk, “Brexit could in fact be the start of the process of destruction of not only the EU but also of Western political civilization“. Brexit could affect the EU in several possible scenarios: it triggers a “domino effect“, the EU remains unified but strained, or leads to more integration in the EU. Nonetheless, the main challenge for the EU is to keep itself from destruction. In almost every member state there is a growing number of anti-EU parties. While the right-wing parties emphasize such issues as immigration and bailouts, on the left, it’s the austerity measures imposed by the EU. Yet, both sides complain about the “democratic deficit“ in the EU. Jean Monnet, who was an EU founder, argued that “ Europe will be forged in crises, and will be the sum of the solutions adopted for those crises.” Therefore, EU is at a critical juncture in its history and Brexit is just the result of issues that have culminated over the years. Rather than pushing for the closer Union, it is time for European leaders to deal with existing issues, whether it is the refugee crisis, a wave of populist anger or “democratic deficit“. Unless they do so, we might witness other countries taking similar actions to the UK to leave the EU.
Iveta Kazlauskaite is Junior Policy Analyst at Bridging Europe
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