Issue Briefs

Will Brexit open up a debate on the future of Europe?

Will Brexit open up a debate on the future of Europe?

Paolo von Schirach

June 25, 2016

The most improbable is now reality. Great Britain opted out of Europe. What does this Brexit vote mean? it means as a minimum that the grandiose European Project that was supposed to have already created a “Continental Symphony” with all EU members playing harmoniously together, in order to praise the virtue of a strongly felt “European Unity” was and is in fact a dream.

The Brits do not buy it

Most British people do not buy any of this. This vote also means the end of David Cameron as British Prime Minister. He led the “Remain” campaign, and he lost, becoming now another political casualty in the broader war between old European political establishments and a restless public, deeply uncomfortable with the status quo.

The British do not see themselves as Europeans

Whatever the political, economic and trade consequences of this upset, as a minimum we know this: a majority (albeit slim) of British voters do not think of themselves as Europeans. The “Leave” camp claims that by severing these ties, the UK regains its full sovereignty. What does sovereignty mean to the average UK voter? Probably something akin to freedom from a vaguely defined foreign (Brussels based) interference.

Narrow victory

It is true that the “Leave” camp won by a narrow margin. But this result in favor of Brexit was not supposed to happen. The UK is after all a leading member of the EU. Its voice matters on the Continent. And yet most British citizens feel that being in the EU is damaging their country.

Is this really true? Probably not. Hard to assess the net losses or benefits for the average British voters of a complicated web of treaties, agreements, regulations, and administrative procedures that binds Britain to the EU.

Vote driven by emotions

In the end, it is clear that most British people voted on the basis of emotions rather than a rational assessment of costs and advantages of EU membership. But emotions and gut feelings do matter when one determines his/her allegiance to any entity that has the aspiration of becoming more important than one’s own Fatherland. The gut feeling here is mostly negative.

And now what?

That said, what will happen next? Who knows really. Before this vote, the Cameron Government made extremely dire predictions of economic losses, stagnation, unemployment and more in case of Brexit. But we do not know that for sure.

There will be a two-year window of time to plan for the exit. And while the disengagement from the horribly convoluted layers of European agreements may prove to be very complicated, I do not believe that this will doom the UK. I suspect that the necessary adjustments will be easier than anticipated.

And some basic things will not change. We are after all in a globalization era of mostly zero-tariff free trade. Finally, I do not believe that it is in the interest of the rest of the EU to make things too complicated, just for the pleasure of giving a hard time to the bizarre British.

Little Britain

True enough, since Scotland voted overwhelmingly in favor of “Remain”, we may very well see demands for a new referendum on Scottish independence. And this time it may succeed. Great Britain may very well cease to exist the way we know it today. Besides, Britain will have to sort the post Cameron era. Will Boris Johnson, former Mayor of London and leading “Leave” champion, become the next Prime Minister? Possible.

The future of Europe

But here is the most important consequence of this shocking referendum result. The unexpected vote in favor of Brexit will force –this is my hope– the rest of the EU members to have a serious debate about the current state and future prospects for the EU.

It is no secret that there is a strong anti EU sentiment also in other European countries, from France to Poland. If the UK survives this transition out of the EU without too much damage, others may be tempted to follow suit. Indeed, unless the EU begins to mean something really important for the average European, what is the compelling reason for staying in this arrangement?

Bureaucratic set up

Other European citizens may want to sever their ties to the EU because they also see the European Union mostly as an elitist affair managed by Brussels-based unelected technocrats who have no political mandate and no political mission. They are faceless functionaries who regulate everything, and inspire nothing.

Indeed, the anemic European Union grows little and in most key sectors it does not invest and innovate enough. For EU members, being together does not mean that the Union they belong to is much more significant and more vibrant than the sum of its parts. The parts (with few exceptions) are weak, and the EU is also weak.

More countries to follow the UK?

I suspect that, given a chance to express their opinions, significant pluralities or even majorities of EU citizens would vote to follow the British example. The EU is an interesting and in many ways successful experiment in free trade and building supra national institutions. But it is inefficient, it lacks coherence and –most fundamentally– it lacks a truly inspiring purpose that can be understood and embraced by the average citizen.


Paolo von Schirach is President of the Global Policy Institute and an Adjunct Professor at BAU International University. A different version of this article first appeared in the Schirach Report


The views and opinions expressed in this issue brief are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of GPI.