Brexit may trigger a European revolution

Across the Continent, the old order is changing fast with long-established parties crumbling. Britain’s EU departure may hasten the process

Guglielmo Verdirame

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What will Brexit mean for Europe? To a large extent its impact will depend on whether a deal is reached and on what terms.

One possibility is that, by the end of it, the UK, having had one foot out for most of the time it was in, will keep one foot in as it goes out. Plus ça change? Not quite. With Brexit, the EU will lose its financial centre; its second-largest economy; the second-biggest net contributor to its budget; and a member with a political and cultural reach across the globe that not even France can match. Yet a comprehensive deal would at least all but cancel out most of the geopolitical risks associated with Brexit. Relations between the UK and European countries will remain the closest and friendliest; and no one would have reason to doubt British commitment to European security. As long as that commitment is in place, and provided in particular that the Anglo-French defence partnership is unaffected by Brexit, European defence will still look credible on its own — that is even if, for whatever reason, US resolve were to falter.

A smooth Brexit that keeps Britain engaged with Europe, on terms that are acceptable to both and preserve their stability, is also likely to mean that the UK will side with the European bloc in many other critical questions — from “trade wars” (whether against the US or China) to climate change. Over time the UK will no doubt develop other trade relations, deepening ties with the Commonwealth, joining Nafta or, as indicated by Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe recently, the Trans-Pacific Partnership. But these developments would only enhance the UK’s commitment to free trade and a rule-based order.

In a no-deal scenario, however, the geopolitical risks of Brexit would be significant. It may seem unthinkable in present circumstances that Britain’s security commitments to its allies on the continent could weaken; that we could, for example, ever find ourselves in a situation where Britain chooses to reach out to Russia — as it did before when it faced a hostile hegemonic power on the continent. Even Putin — one not inclined to miss opportunities — must not rate the chances of severing Britain from Europe. Not only has he not tried to woo Britain since Brexit, he seems to have done the exact opposite. Had Italy or Greece chosen to leave the EU, Putin would have no doubt spotted the opportunity to split the West. He knows that this does not work with Britain. But that too may change with a no-deal Brexit.

Imagine how a breakdown in UK-EU relations would play out. Security and intelligence cooperation would immediately suffer, and the UK would look at alternatives in areas, like sat-nav development, where its contribution to the EU has been critical. There would be a political crisis, and probably a general election. A recurring theme, perhaps the main one, would be one already hinted at in Theresa May’s post-Salzburg speech: they tried to divide the UK. If Jeremy Corbyn emerged the winner against the background of such a campaign, it would be foolhardy to assume that the UK’s fundamental strategic posture would not be in question. Even if he did not win, things would probably change.

Weaponising Northern Ireland to put pressure on the UK has been a political and strategic blunder, the gravity of which the UK’s closest allies do not seem to appreciate. With the UK’s own Secretary of State for Northern Ireland admitting that she did not understand Northern Irish politics, one may be tempted to attribute this blunder to ignorance rather than malevolence. But it is becoming clearer that a more cynical and sinister calculation may be involved. As the Brexit Secretary, Dominic Raab, said: “The noises that are being made in Europe are that Northern Ireland is the price the UK must pay for Brexit.”

The consequences of this approach could be very serious, not only for peace in Northern Ireland but more widely. For Britain’s allies are at risk of breaching a rule of basic political decency in inter-state relations in Europe that is more important than any institution: you do not exploit separatism in a friendly country to weaken or destabilise it. We have moved on from the politics of the 19th century, and no longer treat territorial integrity as a bargaining chip. One of Russia’s complaints has been that Western Europe did not follow this rule in the East, for example in the former Yugoslavia. There may be some truth in it, but the circumstances were very different.

The British are not prone to nationalistic outbursts of anger. The public response has so far been quite measured and, in the event of a no-deal, not a few in the country will blame the British government rather than the EU, no matter what. But if the perception were to crystallise that our European allies have indeed been exploiting Northern Ireland to weaken or divide the UK, a different reaction could take hold: “Why should we be

committed to the security of countries that try to break up our own?” Or worse: “If Northern Ireland is the price they want us to pay, why should we care about Latvia?” Once these comments enter public argument — and we are not far from the point when they will — the damage to UK-Europe relations will have been profound — perhaps irreversible.

It is then that Putin might decide to attempt a reset of UK-Russia relations with a surprise move, including some offer on Salisbury. A bear hug for a demoralised Britain that feels besieged, aggrieved and wronged by its closest friends may not be unwelcome at that point. Of course, hostility to Russia in security circles, and in much of the political class, runs deep. But one should not underestimate how the undercurrent of public sentiment can reshape things very quickly. It may be an exaggeration to say that British feelings about Northern Ireland are as visceral as Spanish feelings about Catalonia. But the idea of foreign powers, and even supposed friends and allies, trying to divide one’s country strikes a very deep chord. Few — in Brussels, Paris, Berlin or even Washington — seem to appreciate how much is at stake.

The irony is that, if the UK and the EU fail to reach a deal, the main culprit will be the backstop. The point of the backstop was to “de-risk” the process. Perversely, it is amplifying the dangers. The backstop was meant to be an insurance policy designed to prevent a hard border and preserve peace in Northern Ireland. Failure to reach agreement on it, however, may bring about a hard border in Northern Ireland, jeopardise peace there, and result in potentially irretrievable damage to the Western alliance. This is the logic of someone who burns his car because he cannot get the insurance policy he wants and then watches as the flames engulf other cars in the street.

By the time this article is in print, it may be that things will have moved on in a more positive direction, although realistically — save for a U-turn by the EU on the backstop — for reasons of British, Irish and EU politics, the possibility of a breakdown over Northern Ireland is not likely to go away any time soon.

Aside from the post-Brexit deal between the EU and the UK, could Brexit still be the trigger for much-needed change in the EU? It would be ironic if Britain ended up reshaping the EU by leaving it. Britain missed opportunities before. Luuk van Middelaar — Dutch political philosopher and former speechwriter to the president of the European Council Herman Van Rompuy (who did much better in that role than his successor, Donald Tusk) — writes that “in 1945 a leadership role in Europe had been there for the taking, but the British had let the opportunity slip” (The Passage to Europe: How a Continent Became a Union, 2013). In fairness, Britain did establish the principal regional non-EU institution in that period: the Council of Europe (which has nothing to do with the European Council). Created by the Treaty of London in 1949, it soon led to the European Convention on Human Rights. But these arrangements were never going to be enough.

By 1950 the French had stepped in to fill in the vacuum of leadership. The Schuman Declaration, proposing to place French and German coal and steel production under a supranational authority, notes van Middelaar, “hit London like a small atomic bomb because France had unexpectedly opted to interweave its fortunes with those of the arch enemy Germany in a ‘supranational’ organisation without the British, rather than entering a looser organisation along with Britain”. As we know, Britain remained outside throughout the 1950s and 1960s when the project took shape, and left others, chiefly France, at the helm.

After Britain joined, its record at effecting change within the EU has been, at best, chequered. Britain may have succeeded in containing some of the worst centralising excesses of Brussels, but it failed in two respects that, with hindsight, have proven crucial. First, Britain did not prevent the Single Market from becoming an instrument of integration and centralisation. Second, it did not (and perhaps could not) stop monetary union — the most catastrophic decision in the history of the EU.

Many in Britain, Leavers as well as Remainers, hoped that Brexit would become a catalyst for change in Brussels. Two years on, the signs are not encouraging. If anything, the unintended consequence of Brexit has been to radicalise the EU. In the Brussels mindset, now perhaps more than ever, “more Europe” is the absolute dogma — the solution to all problems. The politics of TINA (“There Is No Alternative”) seem more entrenched than ever: it is our way or le déluge. And, increasingly, it is not only alternatives to the current shape and direction of the European project that are supposedly unavailable, but also any kind of compromise. Look at the inflexibility displayed by the EU towards the modest budget proposals of Italy’s new government.

No one embodies the radicalisation of pro-EU opinion better than President Macron, who seems to think of  European politics in stark Manichean terms: as a clash between good (the “EU-enthusiastic anti-populists”) and evil (“Eurosceptic populists”). Similar thinking is behind proposals in Italy to create an anti-populist (read pro-EU) national front from the Left to the centre-Right. But wouldn’t the collapsing of all political differences between Left and Right reinforce the sense that the anti-populists have no better answer to the populist challenge than “TINA”?

In one important way, the UK may have already diverged from Europe. The two parties that have dominated British politics for nearly a century got close to 83 per cent of the votes in the 2017 general election, the highest share since the 1970s. In Germany, the combined share of the vote between CDU and the SPD was barely above 50 per cent in 2017 and, based on the recent polls, and on the Bavarian elections, it would be below that level now. In Italy, the two parties that dominated politics in the last 25 years — Berlusconi’s centre-Right Forza Italia and the Democratic Party — together did not even make it to one third, while in France, the political party system is all but in tatters.

In his inter-war reflections on the role of political parties in modern democracy, the Austrian jurist Hans Kelsen concluded that “only self-deception or hypocrisy can lead one to believe that democracy is possible without political parties”. It is one thing for the challengers — whether Trump or Corbyn — to emerge from within a political party. It is another for them to rise to the top on the basis of their own movement. Imagine how different a Trump presidency would be if he had won à la Macron, as the candidate of “Make America Great Again” and with his people dominating Congress. It was Macron who benefited from the crisis of political parties in France last time — but who will do so next?

There is a risk that politics in post-Brexit Europe may become a race to the bottom, with traditional political parties losing more and more ground to insurgent parties, often on the fringes of liberal politics, and volatile movements hoping to generate an impression of novelty. Perhaps even more worryingly, the political offer risks being reduced to a choice between the illiberalism of “strong man” politics and the superficially benign despotism of “TINA” technocrats.

The crisis of the main political parties in European countries is the symptom of a profound legitimacy crisis. Many of the causes are not unique to Europe: globalisation, the financial crisis, new technologies, and so on. But monetary union has added a complication in Europe that makes these problems almost intractable in a manner that is both liberal and democratic. Everyone is too terrified even to consider an orderly dismantling of the euro, but no one has been able to suggest how Europe’s crisis of legitimacy will be resolved under the constraints of monetary union. Some think it enough to keep hoping that one day Europeans will wake up ready to embrace a European superstate. It isn’t going to happen.

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