Two years after Brexit vote, EU remains on the back foot
Saturday marks the second anniversary of the landmark Brexit referendum, which sent political and economic shockwaves around the world. Two years later, with the exit process having consumed a massive amount of time in both London and Brussels, the EU remains on the back foot.
It is in this context that European presidents and prime ministers will meet this week for the final EU Summit before autumn. The very limited progress between London and Brussels in Brexit talks will be a key feature of the session, and with little to no progress expected, October’s meeting could be decisive in determining whether a settlement deal is agreed.
In the two years since the grievous blow to Brussels caused by the Brexit referendum, the mood music across the EU’s 27 states has been mixed. In the second half of 2017 and early 2018, EU politicians had a new spring in their step as the overall political and economic climate for the continent had improved.
What drove this turnaround in sentiment was the failure of far-right populists to win key electoral contests in France and the Netherlands. Many of the continent’s leaders sense that the current Euroskeptic wave may have reached its peak. This political fillip has been reinforced by stronger economic data, with the euro zone economies performing better after several years of slow growth.
But the mood is darkening again, highlighting the fragility of the political situation across the continent, as shown by the faltering Brexit talks, the election of a Euroskeptic coalition government in Italy, the possibility that the German government could collapse in the coming days, and the growing populist surge in Eastern Europe, including Hungary and Poland.
In the context of the 2016 Brexit vote, European Council President Donald Tusk last year appeared despondent when he said the threats facing the EU were perhaps “more dangerous than ever.”
He cited three key challenges that “have previously not occurred, at least not on such a scale.” According to Tusk, the first two dangers related to the rise of anti-EU, nationalist sentiment across the continent, plus the “state of mind of pro-European elites” that he fears are too subservient to “populist arguments, as well as doubting in the fundamental values of liberal democracy.”
While Brexit exemplifies these challenges from Tusk’s perspective, the problem is by no means limited to the UK. French President Emmanuel Macron admitted earlier this year that even his country, one of the two traditional motors of EU integration alongside Germany, would probably vote to leave the EU if presented with a similar choice to the UK’s 2016 referendum.
At the forthcoming summit in Brussels, there are a string of divisive issues on the agenda that speak to Tusk’s concern, including asylum and immigration. The future of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s administration is at risk because of her rift with her coalition partner, the Christian Social Union, on this issue.
A growing number of European leaders sensed last year that the Euroskeptic wave may have passed its peak, but storm clouds are gathering again, potentially threatening the future of Merkel’s government.
Specifically, she is under pressure from her interior minister, who is threatening to turn away from July 1 at the border any asylum seekers already registered in other EU countries unless Merkel can find a multilateral solution to the dispute with Germany’s partners in the union. This exposes divisions between Germany and France, which are pushing for a deal, and countries such as Hungary and Italy, run by populist leaders who are much more skeptical.
This harder-line stance was exemplified in Hungary when its Parliament passed laws on Wednesday to criminalize any individual or group offering to help asylum claimants. This came against the backdrop of Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s landslide re-election in April, following a campaign in which immigration featured heavily after his government rejected EU proposals for it to take a quota of refugees.
If these issues were not big enough for the EU, the third threat cited by Tusk is what he called a new geopolitical reality that has witnessed an increasingly assertive Russia, and instability in the Middle East and Africa, which has driven the migration problems impacting Europe. Intensifying this is US President Donald Trump’s calls for more Brexits across Europe.
It is in this context that Brussels is pushing forward with a European Defense Action Plan that advocates greater military cooperation between EU member states. This is being driven in part by the new geopolitical reality cited by Tusk, including Trump’s uncertain commitment to European allies, and the fact that Brexit eliminates a longstanding obstacle to greater continental cooperation in this sphere given that successive UK governments have opposed deeper defense integration at the EU level.
Decisions in the coming months will help define the EU’s longer-term political and economic character in the face of multiple challenges, including Brexit. A growing number of European leaders sensed last year that the Euroskeptic wave may have passed its peak, but storm clouds are gathering again, potentially threatening the future of Merkel’s government.
• Andrew Hammond is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.