On the 23rd of June 2016 the United Kingdom, one of the three pillars of the EU alongside France and Germany, and the biggest champion of its enlargement, votes to leave the Union. Whether this historic date will be remembered as Europe’s doomsday or the beginning of its resurrection now weights entirely on the EU shoulders.
The results of the Brexit referendum surprised many analysts, the climbing Euro-scepticism notwithstanding. After all, those campaigning to remain in the EU gave perfectly reasonable arguments to do so. The most important of which being that United Kingdom knows for sure what it can get from the EU. An exit, on the other hand, would mean years of uncertainty, negotiation, and rebuilding ties with old and new partners.
Yet when presented with certainty vs. uncertainty, 52% voted Yes to Brexit, triggering a chain of event that shook the country’s economy and prestige. It will take at least two years for the change in status to be sorted out, and the country might no longer have a say in EU decisions. The exit hit the financial markets hard, the pound reaching a 31-year low: a devaluation that will affect the buying power of Britons abroad, their insurance and pension schemes. UK nationals risk losing the privilege of circulating freely within the EU as they once did, for work, study or leisure.
The situation looks bleak. For the moment.
Because be it trade, the economy, jobs, immigration or foreign affairs, there are advantages, and disadvantages to the UK leaving the EU. Only time will tell if the country will emerge victorious or regret its move bitterly.
The only thing that both Euro-sceptics and Europhiles agree on is that for the EU as-it-stands-now, there is one big downside to the Brexit. It leaves the EU wary of a snowball effect on the rest of the Euro-sceptic countries. After all, a number of them share some of the grievances UK has against the Union and that made the country opt out.
While the leave vote was a direct reaction to the disregard of people’s feelings toward the immigration issue, this was only the tip of the iceberg. The cup was already full to bursting with the rising social inequalities, principally fueled by EU institutions that constantly encouraged competition between Member States lacking a unified social and fiscal base. After being abandoned by what they saw as a plutocratic and opaque EU, one that failed to deliver its promise of growth, it is not surprising that the population turned to extreme right parties. Add to that a mounting ‘me first’ mentality among the EU Member States that dominated the last financial crisis, and Britons decided enough was enough: they voted yes.
Now other states know that an exit from the EU is possible, and they might do it … if the EU remains ‘as it is’. The UK leave vote is only a menace for a unwieldy EU, not to a willing-to-change one. The real enemies that threaten the Union are the still waters of the status quo, not the rippling waves of Brexit.
If the EU wants to avoid a disintegration it should look at the reasons Brexit happened and address them. And to do so, it should let go of the idea that the EU is a well-oiled machine. Far from perfect, the EU monetary system is lacking, unemployment is high and issues like migration and terrorism are only escalating. But most important of all, its governance system, which confers to all political decisions, is rigid, unaccountable and plagued with red tape.
Grand gestures are in order.
The EU, especially France and Germany, the remaining bastions of the Union, have to send a strong message. Like the former president of the European parliament Nicole Fontaine suggests, the EU should seize the opportunity of Brexit to reshape the EU Commission, showing to its Member States that they have been heard, and that they have a say in their future. According to her, “it is important to build Europe with its citizens”.
The first priority for the EU now should be to rebuild trust in its institutions, and decisions. Good governance breeds trust, and trust in the the government and its representative breeds legitimacy, and vice versa.
One of the ways to achieve that is for the EU institutions to properly represents the Member States’ will. This would entail the inclusion of national parliaments (more aware of EU local problems and a fairer representation of the citizens) in the EU decision making, but without alienating the European parliament and thus avoiding any tension. It would be a win-win situation, enabling members of national parliaments to learn the ropes of European legislation and at the same time add to the trustworthiness of the EU parliament.
The French economist Thomas Piketty elaborated on a similar note and gave it a practical application. To replace the dysfunctional bicameralism of the EU, he suggests setting up a new system.
The European Parliament would remain as it is. A new chamber, comprising of a mix of representatives from the national parliaments would supplant the European Council, which according to Piketty, “will never be a real legislative chamber”. The numbers of this second chamber would be decided in proportion to the population of each country and the political groups present in each Parliament.
That way Member States would be better represented, instead of having one person speak on behalf of a whole country, like in the case of the European Council. Although the ruling of a qualified majority will be a bit difficult to assess in such a chamber, due to the handicap less-populated countries have because of their low numbers, it remains a more democratic solution to the current situation.
So, by taking actions in the wake of the Brexit (reassure the remaining countries that things will change, and strengthening their trust in the EU decision making by involving national parliaments), the EU should no longer fear any contagion. Far from being a disaster, the Brexit could prove to be a once in a lifetime turnaround for the Union.
The ball is in the EU court, so to speak. It is time for the Union to include its citizens and for its membership to feel less like a straightjacket and more like an embrace.