Monday,24 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1339, (6 - 12 April 2017)
Monday,24 September, 2018
Issue 1339, (6 - 12 April 2017)

Ahram Weekly

EU divorce

Brexit has begun in earnest. But it is unlikely to be the beginning of a new life for either the UK or the European Union

At long last, the politicking surrounding Britain’s exit from the EU is over. British Prime Minister Theresa May last week delivered the letter triggering Article 50 of the EU Charter pertaining to the departure of one of the member states. No one is under any illusions about how difficult the negotiations will be. It will engage the arts of diplomacy and a lot of tug-of-warring over the conditions. Neither side of this entire process has a historical precedent to draw on. The EU is not a federal state which would make the departure of one of its member entities a secession. Nor is it a type of regional bloc or organisation in which joining or leaving is purely a matter of national sovereignty. The EU remains a unique experience in the history of human civilisation. It is less than a state and more than a coalition. It generated a new form of sovereignty governing the relations between the 28 member states who came together on the basis of a common market and the free movement of all the components of production — money, people, goods and services — in that vast market stretching from the Atlantic in the west to the borders of Russia and the Baltic in the east.

One of the curiosities of history is that Britain — which had, firstly, rejected the idea of a European association; secondly, resisted joining it after it was created in 1958; and thirdly held off on joining it until 1973 after having, fourthly, tried to create an alternative regional structure called the European Free Trade Zone — was the country that most pushed for the EU’s expansion into Central and Eastern Europe. Odder yet, even as it promoted expansion it always fought against deepening the bonds. This is why it never joined the Schengen security (and common visa) agreement or the common currency agreement (the Euro zone) and the European Central Bank.

As the two-year long divorce proceedings began, two types of illusions were dispelled. The first was that the EU experience was a kind of historical imperative that would continually augment Europe’s capacities and keep it at the centre of the universe. Since the EU’s inception in 1958, it continued to steadily expand, with the inclusion of Britain, followed by Spain, Ireland and Portugal. Then, when the Cold War ended, the Scandinavian countries joined (apart from Norway), as did the countries from Central and Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean. Only two years ago, it was almost axiomatic in international relations that the EU was virtually fated to broaden to bring on board the Balkan countries (which had begun to prepare for accession), as well as Turkey, which had been engaged in accession talks for some time. Brexit was the first foray in the opposite direction and it suddenly brought the idea of disintegration into the realm of the possible.

The second illusion was that Brexit marked the beginning of the disintegration of Europe. This was not just about the withdrawal of a member of a union. It was a manifestation of the resurgence of ultra nationalism in the constituent states of this union. Moreover, it was accompanied by Donald Trump’s electoral success in the US, ushering in an anti-NATO and even anti-EU outlook into the White House. It thus appeared that Brexit helped create the kernel of a new “Anglo Saxon” league that would offset the weight of the European-transatlantic bond. At the same time, the spectre of EU disintegration due to the resurgence of the European ultra right evoked images of the 1930s in the European collective memory. Yet, Brexit was not followed by other departures. Contrary to the feared domino effect, European countries rallied behind the call of the EU’s Franco-German leadership to protect the union, on the one hand, and, on the other, they were galvanised into standing up against the European ultra right. This could be seen in the results of the Dutch elections and in the general downswing in the popularity of rightwing political figures elsewhere in Europe.

So, the EU experience is neither one of eternal expansion, nor is it an ephemeral process after which EU states will have no choice but to revert to the past. The experiment is ongoing, and as is the case with all experiments, it requires continued support, thought, organisation and adaptability to continuous change.

The divorce process is not going to be easy for either side. The break-up gave little cause for happiness from the outset. About half of British voters were against it and its narrow win in the referendum rekindled secessionist drives in Scotland and Northern Ireland both of which had voted in favour of the UK’s remaining in the EU. For the EU, the departure of the country that has the fifth largest economy in the world is a significant loss, especially in view of how closely intertwined the British economy is with the other economies of Europe.

Of course, as with all divorces, both sides will work to maximise gains and minimise losses. The UK wants to reduce payments while retaining trade advantages. In other words, it wants to change the EU into a kind of free trade zone for Britain. Angela Merkel, who managed to stay in power all these years because she has become the unrivalled leader of Europe, is not about to let Britain have its cake and eat it too. Accordingly, she instructed EU negotiators to draw a line between EU-UK divorce negotiations and trade negotiations which, she insists, can only come after the former. Britain believes it stands to gain more if the two tracks are conducted simultaneously. The EU believes that handling them in succession will strengthen its position, rendering it akin to a great power versus a single state.

Regardless of the nature and results of the negotiations, the British divorce from Europe will have broader geostrategic repercussions, even if the EU remains intact with one less member. Brexit gives the impression that the EU is weak in comparison to both Russia and the US. The former will see this as a new opportunity to exert pressure on the EU’s eastern flank which had previously been part of a great Russian empire. Accordingly, Russian pressures on Ukraine are likely to increase. The US, for its part, will see an opportunity to forge a special Anglo Saxon alliance consisting of the US, Britain, Australia and Canada (an alliance that already exists at the level of intelligence and other forms of coordination outside the NATO framework).

In short, the rest of the world is not going to go on as though it has nothing to do with the EU’s domestic problems. The divorce there is not going to be the beginning of a new life for either partner, as generally occurs with divorces. Rather, it marks the beginning of new patterns of interplay at the global level and things that once seemed impossible may come to pass sooner than we could ever have imagined. For example, as we wait to see how the negotiations unfold let’s keep an eye on the relationship between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.

The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.

add comment

  • follow us on