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Europe after Brexit: Isolating the Continent

Europe after Brexit: Isolating the Continent

The exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union remains undoubtedly the event of the year 2020. From a technical, procedural and institutional point of view, it was an impeccable, flawless process, according to the provisions of the existing EU regulatory framework, even if it took place after a difficult journey over three years from the date of the British referendum in 2016. Historically, the event does not deviate from the British pragmatic-action note – from the epistemic point of view, it can be explained in the margin of the neorealist paradigm, and, from the emotional point of view, it raises interest only from the perspective of its media exploitation.

Paradoxically, the effects of Brexit for the new EU-27 appear to be much more interesting internationally than for the UK. In this context, our hypothesis claims that, beyond economic reasoning, the EU without the UK becomes less Western, less liberal, even less democratic, but much more… European. And this fact will have consequences on its place and role in the international system.

With this evaluation in the background, we are interested and we will analyze comparatively the behavioral-functional models of Albion and the new EU-27 on the global stage. 

The United Kingdom designs its versatile posture in a free trade trinomial 

Since the beginning of the campaign to leave the club, the main aim of the UK has been to establish consistent trade agreements with the EU, the US and China. Initially thought out tacitly, then exposed more and more vocally, this huge stake was based on robust calculations that most likely showed that the benefits derived from the simultaneous operation of the three trade agreements are superior to the advantages given by EU membership. It is, at the same time, a risky game, because London cannot know in advance how much it could gain from negotiating each agreement with each of the three mentioned powers. It cannot know in advance how generous each agreement will be, that is, how much it can extend. It is a game of abilities in which Albion relies on a remarkable historical-existential experience, in which the will, the project and the rational choice have been the ingredients by which, in the last three centuries, the UK has built the world in its current, globalized and westernized configuration. And this time the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom has a project (the three trade agreements), a will (their conclusion) and has chosen a path (Brexit).

Given the success of the project, the UK is emerging as a skillful tactical player, assuming the role of turntable between the three major geo-economic areas (EU, US, China) of the planet. Basically, goods and services that cannot move freely directly between the three major international players mentioned, will be able to run without customs duties throughout the British territory. Even if certain restrictions regarding the re-export from the UK of products originating from other locations will be normed, the way of minimal further processing or rebranding of products may be used as a viable variant of transactions via the UK. It is a huge speculative opportunity that London is opening in the global system and which any commercial firm that will establish its tax residence in the UK will be able to take advantage of. The taxes and fees paid by all these traders will feed the British budget in a much more robust way than the one ensured by the Kingdom’s presence in the single market and in the EU customs union.

With such a strategy, the UK is building its role as a flexible hinge in a free trade triumvirate, which, in addition to the significant financial benefits mentioned, also ensures a significant upward influence in the international system. Both the UK and each of the three major geo-economic actors have a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, a position from which London could be in the grip of the broad global interests of the other permanent members of the Council. In this context, the British side can rely on an agreement understood by the other three competitors to receive a consistent trade agreement with each of them. 

UE-27 post-Brexit – identity, plurality, singularity in the international system 

Through the goals assumed since the creation of the European Communities (common welfare in a competitive common market, collective security, its own complicated institutional system, but unique in the world), the European construction seemed to be anchored in the pattern of obvious neoliberalism. The desire for successive extension of the integrated fields placed it in the margin of a concrete (neo)functionalism. Therefore, all the conditions of a victorious march towards the fast and secure unity of the continent seemed to be fulfilled. However, the EU is made up of state actors with well-defined self-interests stemming from the institution of national sovereignty. The legal personality of the EU, established relatively recently by the Treaty of Lisbon, is insufficient to ensure supranational sovereignty with a single supreme interest. The union is indeed a bi-identity political entity, with both federal and intergovernmental features, but the predominance of intergovernmentalism nevertheless gives the community universe a tacitly unrealistic atmosphere. If we also add that the whole European architecture is based on a thick fabric of treaties, agreements, framework documents, etc., we can grant the EU a factual rationalist attribute. At the same time, the increasing intensification of the socio-identity problems on the European field, assigns to the Union a constructivist label increasingly stuck in the academic environments. Also, the increasingly frequent recourse in public discourse to issues pending from the register of political correctness (secularizing the public environment, emphasizing minority rights, gender equality) gives the European construction an increasingly accentuated postmodernist character.

It is a recognized fact that the EU-28’s external relations have largely been ensured on the British diplomacy chain. The British part in the Union’s external diplomacy, although it cannot be quantitatively measured, has significantly exceeded the UK’s economic contribution to the EU economy, even if we are talking about the second EU-28 economy. If the Franco-German binomial played the role of nucleus for the EU-28, the UK served as the globalizing facet of the Union, informally charged mainly with the external representation. Basically, through London’s leaving, the EU-27 remains without a substantial part of its external contact interface, largely insured until 31.01.2020 through the traditional British formal and informal networks.

Another relational effect of the UK’s departure from the Fraternity Community is the dilution of transatlantic cohesion. Europe’s inability to establish its own security has been offset for years by the UK’s use as a viable link between Europe and the US on the common security dimension. The enlargement of the EU towards the East in 2004-2007 and the departure of the United Kingdom in 2020 redefines the cultural-territorial identity of the EU-27 as a less Euro-Atlantic and more continental one, that is, we are dealing with a more European Union, but slightly less Western one. However, its increased Europeanism will not be at all synonymous with the pre-World War I Europeanism. If pre-war Eurocentrism meant the hegemony and global pre-eminence of Europe in the world, post-Brexit Europeanism would rather define a certain form of sui-generis singularity and lower participation in the current global system.

The libertarian dimension of the community bloc is quantifiable by the share of liberal and socialist governments in the European Community countries after the Second World War; we can easily see that leftist governments prevailed in the continent for the duration, while the right prevailed in the UK. Therefore, the exit of the United Kingdom from the Union will redefine a less liberal EU-27, more inclined towards the state’s vision and even towards neo-Marxism and illiberalism, against the background of current trends on the continent.

The democratic dimension in the EU is also a sensitive level of analysis for the post-Brexit era. Using the values of the democracy index provided by Freedom House for the year 2019, we calculated the community average of the mentioned index, weighted according to the demographic size of each EU member country. Thus, the average democratic status in the EU-28 is 90.9, while for the new EU-27 it is only 78.7. Therefore, a significant democracy deficit is emerging for Europe without the robust democratic contribution of the UK and due to the decline of the values of the democracy index in recent years for both some Eastern states (Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania, Croatia) and for some older members of the Union (Austria, Portugal). 

Final remarks 

Thus, the EU remains a composite, unrealistic, (neo)liberal, (neo)functionalist, rationalist, constructivist and postmodern construction, redefining its identity as an EU-27 in the post-Brexit era. While the UK, operating as a single entity, will make its roadmap easier to manage, the new EU-27 – a hybrid with a complicated functional architecture – will find it harder to find its way in an increasingly competitive international system. Less liberal and democratic, less Atlantic, but more European but not European-centric, the new EU-27 strives after January 31, 2020 to pave the way and define a place in the global system from the standpoint of a single actor, without the British global interface. 

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons. 

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OEconomica No. 1, 2016