When I went to bed yesterday evening, I was very optimistic that the UK would remain a member of the European Union. This morning, my first action was not to make coffee, but to look online in order to get a confirmation for my optimism. The result of the referendum woke me up much quicker than any coffee could ever do.
My life and my academic work is closely connected to the idea of regional integration in general and European integration in particular. I own a Master degree from a British university, I wrote my PhD thesis about the European Single Market, my current research explores the possibilities for regional integration in other world regions, and I – as a German citizen – live and work in Amsterdam, which was occupied by German troops only 75 years ago. From my perspective, it is difficult to understand, which hopes and fears pushed the British decision to leave the EU, and I followed the debate with some anxiety. From my days in London, I remember ‘Cool Britannia’ as a proud, self-confident and open country. What happened during the last 15 years that parts of the country strive for independence time and again, that the country chooses isolation in Europe, that people like Nigel Farage get popular, and that an MP gets shot on the street?
The EU faces a severe dilemma right now. On the one hand, it needs to take care that ‘Brexit’ remains to be a unique event and that no other member states follow. (I hope desperately that the Dutch people stay cool and are able to see the advantages of the EU for a relatively small country. I do not want to lose my privileges as an EU citizen in Amsterdam.) One strategy to keep others in the EU will be to make an example of Brexit and to let the British people and economy suffer from that decision. It would be rather easy to cut off the UK from the Single Market and to cause a recession, which threatens other member states to follow the British example. On the other hand, this strategy is dangerous, because it is based on deterrence and not on the positive appeal of European integration. Euroscepticism will rise even further, if the European Peoples feel to be forced into the EU by economic pressures beyond their control. The result may be just another wave of anger, defiance and disrespect.
The EU had its best days under the Commission President Jacques Delors, when it proactively engaged in new projects like the Single Market or the Monetary Union. The picture today is completely different, and the EU only reacts to threats like the Euro crisis or the refugee crisis. The last integrative project, namely the European constitution, failed, because it dealt only with formal, but not with substantial issues. Now, a new policy project is needed, which explains the European people why they need the EU and what they can gain from European integration. After the excess of neoliberalism and in times of growing inequalities, this project needs to be a social-democratic one. The suffering social-democratic parties of Europe need to get back on their feet and to develop visions of Europe beyond austerity policies and closed borders. We need a new alternative to the reactive policies, which are supposed to be without any alternative.
It is obvious that a return to the nation-state and a break-up of international cooperation and integration cannot be the answer to today’s problems. I am afraid that the British people will learn that lesson very soon. If they stay inside of the European Economic Area, they need to implement most of the EU’s decisions without having a vote on them anymore. Thus, the regaining of sovereignty will be a mere illusion. If the UK really aims to regain sovereignty, it needs to leave the Single Market and faces trade barriers to its most important trade partners (see the analyses of the European trade networks in this blog). Economic interdependence is part of our wealth in Europe and real sovereignty comes at very high costs.To put it into the words of Jean Monnet: ‘The sovereign nations of the past can no longer solve the problems of the present. They cannot ensure their own progress or control their own future.’ Let us be a bit more friendly than the former French President Charles de Gaulle, if the British people experience that.