Article by Alina Bârgăoanu, director of Convorbiri europene
A famous author in the field of globalisation once wrote that, should she have received a dollar each time that term had been used, she would have become a rich woman. The same reasoning holds for the word “Brexit”, which was used for the first time in 2012 by the Euractiv journalist Peter Wilding. The term, together with the reality to which it refers, entertains an unwonted circulation and currently lies at the forefront of European debates. Peter Wilding would definitely deserve to be a millionaire for inspiringly coining this term.
Coming up with new ideas about Brexit is not a risk-free operation, given the prominence of the subject. However, I would dare emphasize two aspects that have been touched upon only lightly in the public debate.
First of all, Brexit – no matter when and how it will eventually happen – is by far the most important recent geopolitical event for the Union and its neighbourhood. In the recent history of European integration, I would place it next to the reunification of Germany. Why, what is the connection between these two events? When we talk about the history of the European integration, we naturally refer to the Franco-German engine. But we fail to emphasise that “half” of this engine included only the Western “half” of Germany, the Federal Republic of Germany. After the German reunification, the founding EU engine became a rather different geopolitical entity. Geopolitically speaking, the Union “moved” eastwards, and thus acquired more pregnant continental-like features. This process was amplified by the two waves of Eastward expansion, 2004 and 2007. The only power that has been left to provide for some kind of balance between continental and maritime features was Great Britain. Great Britain is the only European power that “pulls” the Union towards the Transatlantic World and it represents a true geographical and geopolitical bridge between the European continent and the power across the Atlantic. Great Britain absent, the already powerful continental features of the European Union are reinforced. If the major premises of geopolitics hold, the Union will be naturally drawn into the Eastern part of the continent. This is what the 27 remaining leaders of the EU acknowledged at the end of the Rome Anniversary Summit, most likely unintentionally: “without Great Britain, the Union will move in the same direction”. For the sake of my argument, let me on purpose emphasize unilaterally the interpretation of the term “direction” as referring only to the cardinal points: the only plausible direction is arguably the eastward one, since the westward direction is exhausted (this is what Brexit indicates), the Northward leads to the North Pole, and the Southward direction (meaning Maghreb, the Middle East and Africa) is rather unlikely.
Leaving aside this explicitly unilateral interpretation of the word “direction” only in geographical overtones, Brexit is such a sea changing event also due to the fact that Great Britain is no ordinary member of the European Union; one that you can easily get upset with, one that you can teach a harsh “life lesson” in a rare instance of European unity. Let me put forth some extra-arguments that can only add to the strict geopolitical perspective that I opened up above. Great Britain is a member of the UN Security Council, holds prominent positions in other international organisations that encapsulate the post-WWII liberal global order. It is a genuine global hub of financial, cultural and creative industries, a hub of global services in general. It has achieved excellence in higher education and research and it is a true player in the security and intelligence fields. London is the capital of the advertising, fashion and music industry. And let’s not forget that the Beatles were British after all, no matter how global or “Western” we have come to perceive them. So, why all the anger towards the British, while a genuine reflection upon what happened is largely missing. Let me make my point extremely clear in order not to leave room for misinterpretations. The main loser of this “never-ending exit” is Great Britain itself. I am rather sceptical about the likelihood for success of the “Global Britain” programme. And the scenario of a Scotland secession and, therefore, of Great Britain disintegrating in the aftermath of Brexit is one worth looking into. So, the dangers for Great Britain are real. Still, I consider that we all have rushed unilaterally into throwing harsh accusations against the British, without taking a moment to reflect upon the underlying reasons for Brexit, upon the economic and social factors that have put this process into motion, upon the consequences of this decision that are already felt across the continent, at its core and at its periphery.
Keeping that broad geopolitical perspective, let me make the second point of my position. The whole European Union is suffering in the aftermath of Brexit, but the first zone incurring the costs is Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), that territory on the European continent that can be simply described as “that compact landmass between Germany and Russia”. If one defines CEE as the landmass between Germany and Russia, one can also imagine it to be a battlefield, a disputed territory where the ambitions and the interests of the two powers meet, sometimes even collide. Paradoxically or not, I believe that the concept of “two-, multi-speed Europe” would have never acquired the current quasi-official recognition without Brexit. Whether we like it or not, this scenario of two or multiple speeds may represent, among other things, an implicit acknowledgement of the fact that the core of the Union (be it geographical, political, or decisional) is distancing itself from the Eastern periphery. At the same time, different exuberant scenarios are entertained, according to which Great Britain can be “replaced” by Ukraine, or Poland by Albania. It is very possible that such strong messages and alternative scenarios are put forth for the sake of negotiation or, to be more comprehensive, for the sake of communication. One could dismiss them as “merely” a communication exercise. But we, as communication experts, are well acquainted with that the French sociologist Jean Baudrillard said: once communicated, a message can never be entirely withdrawn. The Europeans have decided to unite in communicating the British a message. It is true that the British have decided to communicate the Europeans a message, too. And yet, I think that all of us have let ourselves contaminated by this communication, or rather non-communication, fever, the fever of “teaching” the other a lesson, preferably the hard way. All the while, the rifts between Great Britain and the rest of the EU are as deep as those cutting across the Union and sometimes cutting inside its countries.
One of the few common sense, yet extremely insightful, statements that I have recently read about Brexit came from the Flemish MEP from the European Conservatives and Reformists Group: “Britain is an island, not a boat. It will remain where it is”. I hope the “fever of emotions” that has overwhelmingly caught both contending parts will soon end and will be replaced by the “fever of reason”. I hope that Europeans – minus British, for the sake of this discussion – will realise that “Britain will remain where it is”; just as the British will hopefully realise that they cannot “take their country back” and swim with it across the oceans of the world. I believe that, as things stand right now, Brexit is real and irreversible, the living proof being that we already live through its consequences. But I equally believe that Europe can still avoid the scenario of a “multi-Europe Europe”, the cosy version of a Union made “in our own image, in our likeness”.
This article was previously published in European Institute of Romania, Newsletter no. 85, May 2017, link: http://ier.ro/en/news/eir-newsletter-no-85-%E2%80%93-may-2017.html