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​​Brexit: a reversal of the integrationist project or a necessary next step?

Yana Popkostova

A brave new world or a reality torn by uncertainty and fear we awoke to today? The British voters have delivered what figured in many yearly forecasts as a worst-case, almost unthinkable overhaul of the status quo, alongside Trump presidency predictions that is. The results are clear though, and the EU should capitalise on the opportunities created by this existential challenge. 

While the separation will not be immediate, as all procrastinated divorces it is bound to be at times nostalgic, at times bitter and derogatory. The best pathway ahead is for the EU to proceed immediately to Brexit, the Union cannot entertain any special treatment to a country which stood clearly against such (because the UK has always been a special member par excellence with a multitude of derogations, rebates and opt-outs). Above all, the EU leaders have to avoid a complete fracturing of a project, which, despite its frustrations and at times outdatedness, has proven over time its ability to unite, pacify, and promote understanding and common growth. The voices of the extreme right in Spain, France, Denmark and the Netherlands were quick to use the Brexit vote to fortify their national power struggles and disentangle the very bonds that have kept us together over the 70 years of continuous integration. The contagion is dangerous, the call of Marine Le Pan for a French referendum gives an indication of how easy it is to unleash a domino effect across the EU. The looming elections in Spain and France can indeed start the beginning of the end, or at least a dangerous swing into a new-old trendy politics of isolationism.

But not only ideology is at bay - geopolitics, defense and energy are amongst the sectoral areas which will experience a period of sustained shock and inevitable loss of soft power for both parties in the divorce. Brexit at a time when the EU is torn on all fronts: the untamable migration flows, and accompanied loss of life and hope, ravaging war in Syria, more self-affirmed Russia, Greece on continuous life support, can easily swing the direction of travel to a future where domestic inequality, regional distrust, climate hazards and dysfunctional economy will become the new reality. The Brexit should fortify our political destiny, and this can happen only through a quick exit process, accompanied by a profound reflection on the quintessence of the European project. A look at the demographics, age, level of education and professional status in the Brexit vote shows that the result is symptomatic of the growing pain, disillusionment and inequality in British society. This sentiment is not confined to the UK. A debate, not on the wrong concept of democratic deficit is needed, rather on the growing detachment of the elected from those who have elected them; on the growing inequalities in European societies today; on the sense of powerlessness reigning in suburbs and impoverished provinces. Our credibility as a Union has suffered a heavy blow - we need to recognize this, learn, keep calm and carry on.

Without regrets.

Because no matter how mortified some of us might feel as lovers of all things British - education, digestive biscuits and Shakespeare, we should feel partly relieved because this referendum was a political gamble taken by a weak Prime Minister, who has won election after election raising the anti-EU card. Because not once, the current British political elite, have projected an image of the EU coming straight from a Kafkian novel - distant, grey, faceless castle which impedes on British sovereignty and emasculates British power. The fear, outrage, ignorance were solicited for too long. And, in a decisive moment, nobody managed to make a credible case for the EU as an idea, as an asset, as a future, and this tells us a lot about British place in European politics today and historically.

Without remorse.

Because the vote played on people’s worst instincts. Knowledge was projected as a national plague or a conspiracy against Britain. To gain what? Nobody knew...nobody asked. A former education secretary spoke of the dangers of experts. Throw the books in the fire, linch the experts, break the spectacles. This has happened before. In the blackest hour in European history. Of course, who needs knowledge, when we have demagogy; who needs facts, when we can produce posters projecting war-torn people and famished kids as terrorists, impeding on our greatness. The world woke up to a terrible transformation - a country, which has called itself Great, had championed passionately enlargement and exchange, has turned into a small island, fearful, isolated and retreating into the trenches of European and global politics and power. Because the Great embrace, are driven by moral fortitude and ambition to spread their model across, the Great conquer. And this campaign showed that the UK majority has diverged too much from the European ideals.

Because identity politics did not win in this vote. Intolerance. Ignorance. Misconceived hubris. Vulnerability. They did. The ‘Breaking point’ is indeed now, the lesson should be taken, and Europe [r]evolutionized.

The above post was first published on the 24th of June in the European Center for Energy and Geopolitical Analysis Newsletter. Subsequent reproductions in paper publications followed in the weekend of 25-26 June.

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