In the early morning hours of the 24th of June, 2016, the future of Europe, if not the world changed. The citizens of the United Kingdom had decided to sever the U.K’s already fragile bond with the European Union. The outcome startled the world, showing that this European Project, conceived in 1993, is at the risk of falling apart. Experts and Analysts have warned that Brexit may have serious implications for the political, economical and military stability of Europe. However, the wider implications of such a move — for the EU, Europe, transatlantic relations, NATO, and wider international relations — have often been ignored except for debates in a small international relations community of diplomats and scholars. Now, the question which leaps to the eye is: Is Brexit the largest blunder ever committed in modern European history or is it just over-hyped? Let’s dig deeper…
After the Second World War, there was a new movement to create unity between Germany and France, which culminated in the establishment of the European Union four decades later, in 1993. The basic premise under which the E.U. works is free trade and free movement of people. With a combined Gross Domestic Product of over $16.220 trillion, it is the largest single economy on Earth. Though the E.U. consists of 28 member states, the United Kingdom , Germany and France account for over 51% of the GDP of the E.U. The withdrawal of one of the EU’s largest member states is almost certainly a defining moment in the history of the EU with wider knock-on effects for NATO, European security and international relations.
The first problem the EU would face from a Brexit is the unprecedented experience of negotiating the withdrawal of a member state. The very idea of withdrawal is a taboo, representing a reversal and challenge to the idea of European integration as a process that moves forwards not backwards. That said, withdrawal is not strictly unprecedented with two overseas territories of member states having left: Greenland in 1985, and Algeria in 1962. The centre of power of EU will most likely shift from Britain to Germany with no power to check it.
The future of E.U. without the United Kingdom is widely open to interpretations. An EU without Britain might be a more united union that functions better. It might also become more divided, with a Brexit unleashing centrifugal forces that unravel the EU. Either way Brexit will most certainly have significant implications for NATO, wider European politics, transatlantic relations and Europe’s position in the international system. It is concerns over such implications, that will shape the way countries such as the USA, Russia or emerging powers like China and India will view Brexit. A Brexit that will add to Europe’s divisions and security weaknesses, or turn it inwards will be of serious concern to the world. The future of Europe will be shaped by whatever post-withdrawal relationship is established between the EU and Britain.
Though we cannot correctly predict the exact implications of Brexit, we can very well analyse the worst case scenario: That is the danger to the European Union’s unity. This unity as already come under considerable pressure during the Euro zone and the migration crises. Attempts to achieve the E.U.’s motto of “an ever closer Union” will likely receive more resistance than ever before and future tests of the integrity of the Eurozone and Schengen also cannot be ruled out. If the United Kingdom thrives outside the E.U. , then Britain’s withdrawal may trigger centrifugal forces, leading other E.U. members to question their membership, thus triggering the so-called “Domino effect”.
Thus, a British exit from the EU is not something to be casually overlooked. A Brexit will confront the EU with significant and unprecedented practical and philosophical challenges. The withdrawal of any member state would be a defining moment for the EU, to lose as large a state as the UK even more so. However, it is safe to say that the EU and Britain will strive to arrive at the ideal solution, to minimise the effect of this development.
We can only hope that they will succeed.