(Opinion) Amongst all the chatter, is Brexit a blessing in disguise? At the very least, it is a pivotal moment in the battle for Europe’s soul.

By Sean McLaughlin

The few British Europhiles are looking for every chance to say ‘I told you so’. Yet, a sober assessment tells us that Brexit may well have some positive affects and opportunities.

Information and Euroscepticism

For decades, Euroscepticism has been a prominent movement in the UK with only hypothetical premises. These premises are now real and Brexit is playing out. A cause which few believed would materialise is now a reality. This may be a blessing in disguise in that the onus is now on this particularly vociferous element of society to make Brexit the success that they said it would be. For many of them, it is a lifelong cause.

And so it has become clear that many claims of the (various) leave sides cannot be delivered together, in what was not the most honest of political campaigns.

The day following the vote, UKIP leader, Nigel Farage (Leave.EU) stated that there would not in fact be £350 million available every week as a result of leaving the EU. Prominent Brexiteer Daniel Hannan (Vote Leave) famously claimed on Newsnight that immigration would not come down as a result of Brexit and that this issue was never a priority of his.

It is not that these two leading Brexiteers were back-tracking. Rather, Mr Farage’s vision of a closed Britain is vastly different to that of Mr Hannan’s hyper-globalised Britain with deep single market access (and thus free movement of people). We cannot have our cake and eat. As these (un)truths become clear and the magnitude of the Brexit undertaking hits home, voters may increasingly favour pro-European parties.

Immigration concerns are widely held

British concerns towards the European project are by no means noises only coming out of Britain. Most contentious appears to be the issue of free movement. Other countries such as Sweden have similar levels of EU immigration, the associated problems, and would be sympathetic to such a move. (This is the case even if it was Britain and Sweden’s choice not to apply transitional free movement caps to new member states in 2004/2007).

The FT’s Gideon Rachman has suggested that Britain may end up not leaving the European Union. He explains that the EU has survived referendum shocks before: Danish and Irish obstruction to the 1992 Maastricht Treaty and 2009 Lisbon treaty respectively. In both cases, concessions were made, the electorates voted again and they passed a second time. Boris Johnson covered these events as a younger journalist and this is almost certainly what he alluded to in his article on leaving back in March, ‘There is only one way to get the change we need, and that is to vote to go’.

A cosmetic adjustment to free movement, such as an ‘emergency break’ on EU passports that any member state could apply, is not a non-starter. This was the essence of Rachman’s pledge made back in June. The chances of an immediate re-writing of Britain’s terms of membership seem to have dissipated. However, a lot is at stake and attitudes change quickly in relation to such issues. One could not rule out the government re-negotiating our terms along these lines, then putting it to the people for approval in the 2020 general election.

The EU’s unlikely PR campaign?

A way in which Brexit could be working for the better is that oddly, Brexit is finally explaining what the EU is for. A recent comment of The Economist is beginning to materialise: ‘years of unchecked attrition warfare on Brussels may have nasty consequences’.

Gradually it is becoming clear that, contrary to what many British tabloids may have us believe, the EU does not exist solely with the intention of irritating Britain. Back in March, I made this point in the Guardian – that European integration is not a failure. Rather, the failure lies in the inability of elites to explain to citizens what European integration is for, and its benefits. This leaves the EU’s actions open to all sorts of arbitrary colourings. As an example, EU regulation is not drawn up to aggravate British business. It is there to harmonise standards and norms across a trade bloc. In any case, we will have to align our laws with the EU’s if we are to compete, as Norway and Switzerland do. This ‘regulatory equivalence’ appears to be the essence of PM May’s great repeal bill.

Other EU member states should take advantage of what seems to be a wave of pro-Europeanism, and a creeping EU PR campaign. Should they not, other member states may become hostage to precisely the same forces that were unleashed in the UK.

That such rights EU passports hold may now be taken away have provoked some recent, rather well attended anti-Brexit protests. The blue flag and yellow stars, of all places, has waved in the streets of London. Such protests may continue and have the right to do so. Certain groupings in the Tory Party are also pressuring the government to adopt a ‘Soft Brexit’. As the economic consequences start to bite, a rejuvenated Labour or Lib Dem party could gain ground at the next General Election by standing on an anti-hard Brexit platform.

Impetus for change

Many foresee the imminent implosion of the European project. Headlines abound of the ongoing perils of the Eurozone, the refugee crisis shifting direction, resurgent Russia, the dilution of democratic values in Eastern Europe, and Brexit, to name a few challenges.

By the same token, successes are rarely publicised: A deal reached earlier this year stemmed the flow of refugees from Turkey to negligible amounts; few appear to have noticed the EU parliament’s proposal to give every 18 year old a free inter-rail ticket.

Built on compromise, the EU is used to bending: earlier this year Spain and Portugal were given clemency to meet budget deficit targets; the Belgian region of Wallonia recently gave in and ratified the high quality free trade deal CETA with Canada. If won, an upcoming referendum in Italy this December would give the country’s political system a long overdue makeover.

For all the talk of Europe capitulating to terrorism, it is also the continent whose nation states have put to bed considerable terroristic threats in past decades: from ETA in Spain to Baader-Meinhoff in Germany. On board the Italian aircraft carrier, The Garibaldi, in August, Merkel, Hollande and Renzi agreed measures to coordinate defence and security and anti-terrorist efforts. Strong opposition to such measures, and an ultimate veto from Britain whilst we were members meant that such issues could never be discussed. In a separate section, I also argue that variable geometry may well now be on the cards. Realistically, through the renegotiations, Britain could now strive to create a ‘two-tier Europe’ – the EEA, and non-eurozone members against the rest.

For all the talk of Europe’s economic woes, it is also the continent which accounts for 22% of global output with only 7% of the population. A recent Charlemagne column called “Unshrinking the Continent” made this point and urged Europe’s multiple crises to be seen in perspective.

To be clear, Brexit is highly damaging, unworkable, and impractical. We are denting 40 years of commercial relationships, and sterling is being compared to the Malawian Kwacha in the process. Voluntarily, we have sacrificed our seat on the world’s largest and most advanced trade bloc and single market which we helped to create. Voluntarily, we have sacrificed our seat on an increasingly sophisticated foreign policy machine, which we would have been well placed to lead.

Clear is that Brexit will hurt Britain much more than it will the EU. Yet, a narrative has grown that far from bringing down the EU, Brexit will force the Europeans to get their act together in some ‘radical marriage therapy’.

Exercising continued flexibility in a good deal for Britain and others, together with action in mending flaws would give the project greater credibility than it hitherto had. A unit that is principled but also adaptable, capable of moving with times may keep alive its appeal to the long queue of Balkan countries patiently waiting for their day of accession.


This article was written by Sean McLaughlin

Latin America and Spain Research Analyst at InframationGroup, based in London (http://www.inframationgroup.com/)

Northern Ireland Ambassador for the European Student Think Tank (https://europeanstudentthinktank.com/international-office/united-kingdom/)

Recent graduate of the University of St Andrews (http://st-andrews.academia.edu/seanmclaughlin)