Brexit might provide an opportunity for genuine change in Europe

Ragnar Weilandt writes: the UK’s expectations of the EU were always mainly transactional rather than emotional or ideological. The founding members created the ECSC [European Coal and Steel Community] to end centuries of war. Southern European countries joined the Common Market in order to stabilize their democracies. The central and eastern Europeans joined the EU to adapt the Western European political and economic system and to end decades of Russian domination. Most member states and their citizens cherished the Union’s promotion of peace, freedom, democracy and human rights. In contrast, British elites and citizens primarily cared about market access.

The UK’s transactional expectations influenced its action. Many great continental leaders were inspired by the European idea. While it did not always influence their daily policy and rhetoric, it often guided important decisions and major speeches. In contrast, British leaders were largely driven by a continuous assessment of short-term costs and benefits. Moreover, they frequently resorted to cheap populism at the cost of the EU for the sake of short-term gains in domestic politics.

Since the UK joined the Common Market, it has used its status and its power as a big member state to secure special treatment at the cost of its fellow member states. Moreover, it opted-out of many of the EU’s basic structures such as Schengen and the Euro. In doing so, the UK set a precedent for smaller states’ cherry-picking. Moreover, it spearheaded various attempts to slow down political integration. Hence, successive British governments contributed to the inadequacy of the European institutional set-up that caused the various crises the EU is currently facing as well as its institutional inability to deal with them. It even actively obstructed the EU’s crisis management, notably by trying to block the fiscal compact in 2011 or more recently by refusing to participate in the European system of quotas to resettle refugees.

And at a time when the EU and its members are struggling with these crises and therefore have more than enough on their plates, British voters decide to hand it yet another major crisis. A crisis that will not only take away major political and administrative resources desperately needed to fix the Union, but also one that undermines and potentially even endangers the European project as a whole. Much like Charles de Gaulle predicted [when opposing British membership].

The UK certainly made its fair share of contributions to European integration. Notably it pushed for completing the single market and made the case for Eastern and Southern enlargement. It is a sad historical irony that diffuse fears of immigrants from these countries ended up being the reason for many voters’ decision to back Leave. However, in terms of transforming the EU into a well-functioning political entity, the UK has become a major stumbling block.

A stumbling block that might now disappear. [Continue reading…]

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