Why Brexit is about more than just Britain

Andrew Hammond

Saturday was the EU’s first day without the UK as a member. While much attention has focused on what withdrawal means for London, how the bloc itself changes because of Brexit could be a significant but often overlooked outcome.
Two key debates about the EU’s future are underway. The first concerns internal reform and re-balancing of the union.
A broad range of EU policy could change markedly in the years ahead, altering the bloc’s political economy. UK influence over the EU is often overlooked. The UK pushed for an enlarged union in which deregulation and free-market economics are the norm. Attempts to move away from this, for example in tax harmonization, could take a step forward without London as a blocker.
In this context, Brussels has begun a two year “conference” about its future, a soul-searching exercise aimed at “reaching out to the silent majority of Europeans, empowering them and giving them the space to speak up.” Areas of focus include how best to deliver the EU’s key ambitions on issues such as digital transformation, equality and shoring up Europe’s democratic foundations.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has pledged to follow up on what is debated, including potential treaty changes. Beyond these big picture debates, there is an important conversation underway about procedural reform, including restructuring EU budgets, and staffing.
The other major debate is about the EU’s role in a more complex, multipolar Europe and wider world.
Brexit is already changing the EU’s relationship with non-EU European countries, namely Norway, Switzerland, Ukraine, Turkey, Liechtenstein and states in the Balkans. Each has developed relations with Brussels that, most obviously in the case of Norway and Switzerland, but also to a lesser extent Turkey and Ukraine, were intended as a means to the end of eventual EU membership, or at least closer relations. Brexit has not (yet) reversed these processes, with eventual accession remaining an option, but it does open up new possibilities for future relationships centred on non-membership.
A broad range of EU policy could change markedly in the years ahead, altering the bloc’s political economy. UK influence over the EU is often overlooked.
Decision makers in these states have used Brexit as an opportunity to raise questions about the future of their relations with the EU. There has been limited discussion about whether Brexit might open opportunities for a radical overhaul of Europe’s institutional architecture. Such ambitious plans have faded, however, partly because the complexities of the Article 50 negotiations were perceived to tarnish Brexit, but they do point to opportunities for change.
Such reform may be needed to deal not only with the changes that the UK exit brings to European geopolitics, but also with wider global trends of which Brexit is only one. Europe already feels the pull of different world powers, especially the US and China, and it struggles with the geopolitical disruptions of Turkey and Russia.
This has brought greater uncertainty to Europe, and with Brexit making Britain another pole, the geopolitical terrain becomes all the more complex. If population projections hold, Russia, Turkey and the UK will be Europe’s most populous countries by mid-century, leaving the EU in the middle of large, assertive states.From the perspective of decision makers in states such as Russia, where sovereignty and hard power matter, Brexit is asignificant loss of power for the EU. Europe’s long history of struggling to overcome internal problems is one the world is also accustomed to dealing with. A period of introspection with resources and time spent dealing with internal issues means the EU may be more distracted from international matters on which others will take the lead.
Three nations in particular will be crucial to how Brexit plays out in a changing global geopolitical landscape and a fast-changing multipolar world: Germany, the US and Russia. Powers such as France or China will influence Brexit, but it will be the choices of the first three —to engage, exploit or ignore — that shape the context of European and international politics in the 2020s.
What this all underlines is that, important as Brexit is, it alone will not define the future of the EU. Instead, the UK’s exit is just one of several critical challenges confronting the bloc that include Russia relations, the future of NATO and ties with the US. How the bloc responds to them all will not just frame its future relationship with the UK, but also determine its wider place in the world. -AN