When in 2016 the Brexit vote happened, Europeans were utterly shocked by the outcome, but the UK, being a sovereign nation, could of course decide whatever it wanted.
It was fascinating to watch the enormously controversial debate Brexit had stirred. After all, it was ‘merely’ a domestic decision of one member country, even if it was clear that this domestic decision would have implications for its European partners.
So, with the benefit of hindsight, looking back on Brexit, dissecting it on an abstract as well as a practical level, what does it tell us about the UK, about Europe, and about the way we want to live together?
Watching for Brexit’s success or failure
Writing about Brexit Britain, and pointing to the queues at petrol stations and the empty supermarket shelves in 2021, feels a bit like a cheap dig. Nonetheless, it touches on an important point of the whole saga: by effectively turfing European workers out (through making it sufficiently awkward for them to work in the country, so that they decide to leave on their own accord), it is perhaps unsurprising that the UK found itself thousands of lorry drivers short. And fruit pickers. And people working in slaughter houses. And nurses…
It is true that in Germany and most other EU states there is also a shortage of nurses, and a few more lorry drivers would not go amiss either. However, the problems Europe faces in this regard are minor compared with the unfortunate drama playing out in the UK. There is little doubt about it: one of the reasons why things run more smoothly on the continent is that all those EU citizens that left the UK are now contributing to the EU economy instead.
Contrary to what either Brexiteers or Remainers claim, there is not one coherent uniform tale of disaster or glorious economic miracle in the post-Brexit UK, but instead a patchwork of successes and defeats; a chequered story which only in years to come will be seen as ‘Brexit successes’ or ‘Brexit failures’. These will follow on from the UK’s initial impressive vaccination performance outclassing Europe’s bumbling efforts, or conversly the country’s automotive industry, shrinking from being worth £22bn in 2016 to £15.3bn in 2020, with a number of companies still preparing to leave the UK because they can’t ensure just-in-time deliveries and are fearful of local content issues.
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Does safety really come in numbers?
Brexit is also quite a watershed for Europe. One can safely assume that the UK’s EU membership has led to such controversial debates, because, at its core, it wasn’t merely about one country deciding to go its own way by pulling out of the common club; it is an event that essentially poses the more fundamental questions about the very essence of the club itself.
How Brexit turns out for the UK will also be a verdict on whether it is better to be part of a big trading bloc or to be a small and agile player. It boils down to the question of whether to emphasise the benefits of frictionless trade and operate in a large market with harmonised standards, or whether to determine the rules that apply within a sovereign state and be able to take quick, unilateral decisions and be highly flexible. It is a choice between stability, largely driven by big corporate and institutional interests, or a more local-democratic approach fraught with changes of mind, and twists and turns.
Thus, suddenly for many Europeans, Brexit wasn´t merely a domestic British affair, it was – or rather it is – an important question about how we want to organise our societies, a question that had hitherto not been fully explored, which is one of the weaknesses of the EU. EU citizens are not asked – they are simply told. However, now, with the question having emerged – ‘Is it better to take matters into your own hands, be responsible for your own decisions, or be part of a big structure that ensures a rule-based approach that, in an insurance-like manner, softens the blow of whatever happens in exchange for submissive acceptance?’ – the genie is out of the bottle.
The near total lack of institutional response to Brexit makes one wonder whether Europe has moved on from the attitude prevalent in 2005, when a draft EU constitution was presented to the populations of Europe, and rejected. It was subsequently repackaged and implemented nonetheless in other laws and legal texts, by a well-oiled ‘we know best’ bureaucratic apparatus.
What now for the EU and UK?
So what conclusions can be drawn? Where do we go from here? It always seemed that the common denominator in all of this was the economy, and concern about what would happen in economic terms when the UK left the EU. As it turns out – not a great deal. At least not for Europe. Some companies have lost business, but the overall effect for European companies appears to be surprisingly limited, and in some specific sectors even net positive. Voices warning of difficult times ahead have grown silent. As for the UK, the picture is more complex. In either case, however, it is probably too early to tell.
People seem to have tired of this topic and are starting to ignore it. Brexit Britain has – maybe with the exception of France – largely disappeared from the front pages of European papers. This is unfortunate, because through Brexit we are witnessing the biggest national economic experiment in modern history. (Although, a common European currency without a central bank able to act if need be, and a currency not based on common tax-raising power, could also be seen as similarly historic experiment). The economic success (or lack thereof) of the UK will tell us a lot about how economic models function in the 21st century. Thus, on both academic and democratic grounds, it is in our interest to follow this story as closely as possible. Is the UK faring better than Europe in terms of being governed? How will European politics change? Will the views held by the northern European countries (Germany, the Netherlands, the Scandinavians) find it harder to be heard in the European Parliament now that the UK is gone?
However, there is also another reason. Brexit provides Europeans with a more realistic perspective of their own institutions. All those rules, standards and regulations, those long EU-meetings in Brussels that are so easy to mock and accuse of over-regulation and interference… these rules ensure the ease of trading, they make borders invisible. Europeans have all but forgotten how easy it is now to ship goods from one country to another, or go and work there, because it works so smoothly.
Europe might be reasonably good at providing a modicum of stability in stormy times, but it doesn´t touch people’s lives. It doesn’t stir them, as the emotional appeal of Brexit has done for large parts of the UK. The EU is a technocrat’s wet dream, but it inspires no one. This is crucially important, because when the chips are down and people go to the ballot box (as in 2005 in France or the Netherlands, or in 2016 in the UK), the EU needs to have the people on its side. So far, it has failed this test pretty miserably.
All of this we know already. The problem is, no one is acting on it. In consequence, it is not inconceivable that Brexit isn´t a one-off.
Lastly, and most importantly, close friends were lost along the way. Let’s make sure that parting ways and taking different paths doesn’t make us strangers, or worse still, adversaries.