Brexit: Europe’s Awkward Questions about its Awkward Partner

Tim Oliver |

A UK in-out referendum will soon be upon us. How the rest of the EU responds will be crucial to shaping the outcome in the UK and shaping the future of Europe.

The UK’s 2015 general election has been one of the most spectacular in the country’s modern history. Defying the polls, David Cameron managed to increase the number of Conservative MPs to secure a small majority in the House of Commons.

It means the UK and EU will soon face a make or break moment that many in both have quietly dreaded: a UK in-out referendum.

To borrow from US President Lyndon Johnson, the EU now has to decide whether it wants the UK inside the EU tent pissing out, or outside the EU tent pissing in.

European Thinking

For Cameron, the referendum is a commitment he made personally in January 2013 and which carries almost universal support in his Conservative Party. The question is no longer if but when the vote is held.

Whatever date Cameron goes for we can expect a tsunami of analysis and debate about what a Brexit would mean for the UK. This will add to the plethora of existing research on the subject.

But as I’ve argued before, this overlooks the equally big question of what a referendum and/or Brexit could mean for the EU. Understanding the EU’s reaction will also be crucial if we are to understand whether the UK can secure a renegotiation and remain a member.

Like it or not, Europe will soon witness the people of one of its largest states debating whether or not to quit the leading organisation of pan-European cooperation and unity. This is not an insignificant development for the EU, European geopolitics, the states of Europe, or how we study European politics and integration.

That might sound an obvious statement to make. It’s one you’ll find is raised over dinners in Brussels or coffee in Berlin. There has certainly been no shortage of informal chat about what a Brexit could mean for the EU.

But discussion quickly turns to what a Brexit might mean for the UK. The implications for the EU are pushed to the side. There have been only a couple of reports – SWP, DGAP, ECFR, Bertelssmann, Open Europe – analysing what such a big event could mean for the EU. Each ranges in size and focus.

Hopes and Fears

In Britain it is hoped an open debate about Europe can lance the festering political boil Europe has become. It could provide a fresh start for everyone. A successful vote could also break Europe’s fear of referendums. It could show that the citizenry of member states can and should be engaged directly in discussing the future of the EU and their member state’s part in it.

However, a UK referendum could trigger calls for similar referendums elsewhere. Britain is not the only country to have a difficult relationship with the EU. Granted it is the one where an out vote is a distinct possibility. Nevertheless, some fear the UK is about to trigger a domino effect that brings chaos through more referendums. The outcome would be a slow weakening and unravelling of the union.

Forever Awkward

Even if the UK votes to stay in the EU, the issue of Europe in British politics is unlikely to be settled. Rather than cleanse British politics of a poisonous debate, the vote could merely be a placebo. The European question in British politics has long been about more than to be or not to be in Europe. It weaves its way into many of the problems and issues shaping the UK today. They are unlikely to go away whether the decision is to stay or leave.

Whether in or out the UK will therefore remain, as Stephen George once described it, ‘an awkward partner’. The rest of Europe should expect continued sniping and difficult times. So would it not be better then to banish Britain altogether to the outside of the EU tent?

Awkward Questions

The rest of the EU will play a central role in deciding whether Britain stays or goes. Those in the UK who seek a withdrawal would be served by an EU that is instead obstructionist, refusing to countenance much by way of renegotiation. This would be a ‘passive expulsion’, the EU doing little to keep Britain in because the members quietly want it to up and leave of its own accord.

In deciding whether to try to keep or let Britain go the rest of the EU will have to face three issues about a Brexit:

First, what could be the economic costs for the EU of the various possible trading relationships that would follow a Brexit? A UK on the outside would be the EU’s biggest trading partner. Would any special deal be offered to the UK, or would this risk complicating relations with other non-EU states to say nothing of compromising the single market?

Second, how would UK-EU relations on matters of security and defence be managed? Britain might have recently become more withdrawn from the world, but it retains a considerable punch. The UK will not be quitting NATO.

Third, who would benefit from the political changes to the EU brought about by a British exit? Or would there be little benefit? Would the damage hit everyone by triggering a series of changes that weaken the idea and direction of European integration?

Searching for answers

The search is now on to decide what position the EU will take. Central to this will be the position of Germany. Others should not be overlooked. Cameron has often made the mistake of assuming all decisions are made in Berlin. That overplays Germany’s power, if only because any such decisions are made with a view to wider European politics and not simply bilateral relations with the UK.

In September 2014 the DGAP published a report (edited by myself and Almut Möller) made up of 26 views of a Brexit written by people from research institutions and universities from sixteen EU member states, nine non-EU countries, and a view from the EU’s institutions in Brussels.

Its conclusions were clear: while there is sympathy for some of the UK’s frustrations at the EU, there is equally a great deal of frustration at the UK’s attitude towards the EU and other member states. As the Dutch contribution put it, Britain suffers from a sense of ‘narcissistic victimization’ – of believing only it suffers from the EU’s failing and only it knows the way forward.

The report does not make for optimistic reading for a UK government hoping the rest of the EU will offer it much by way of a renegotiation to sell in a referendum. Yet there is some hope because the report shows the rest of the EU has not yet fully grasped where a Brexit may take them. Perhaps then Britain and the rest of the EU still have time to realise that a Brexit is not in the interests of either side.