Brexit is very bad news. This unparalleled event is much more significant than simply going from 28 to 27 member states. The United Kingdom’s exit deprives the European Union of its great power. This is a loss for the Union, whose population on the 31st of January will fall below half a billion people (to 446 million) and which will also result in a net decline of influence. Brexit is a contradictory message being sent to the world, all while the EU seeks to expand its geopolitical influence. It is finally, if not the renunciation, then at least a long-term alienation from the European project to unite the continent, and to which, no offense to the British, Britain truly belongs. To paraphrase Paul Valéry, with Brexit, we Europeans now know that we are mortal.
The legal and symbolically powerful withdrawal of the United Kingdom, at least, provides some pedagogical virtues. Though it is regrettable, the fact that Brexit is even occurring is a revelation of the original nature of our Union. This is not a new empire, contrary to what critics have to say. Article 50 of the European Treaty, an exit clause that was thought to act as a theoretical textbook case, does indeed apply here. However, the now very real possibility of leaving the Union refers back to the equally effective choice of remaining. Since the British referendum in 2016, the EU-27 will have implicitly reaffirmed their choice to stay. A state is not a member of the European Union by default, but by will. This is a lesson in democracy.
Realism is yet another pedagogical virtue of Brexit. This withdrawal provides a life-size lesson in what the European Union is actually all about in practice. The long negotiation of the withdrawal agreement and its painful British ratification will have enabled the British, and beyond that, all Europeans to concretely (re)discover what the internal market means in practice, what the customs union contributes to, and what European citizenship represents, among many other achievements. Indeed, it was at the moment of leaving the European Union that all of these achievements, which are most often invisible in everyday life and too obvious to be noticed, suddenly appeared to be tangible, and their significance to be reconsidered. Brexit, nonetheless, is an absurd demonstration of what the European Union is at its core.
This is a demonstration that Europeans have also made to themselves. If “Brexit means Brexit,” as stated by Theresa May, then “EU means EU,” for the Europeans, represented in a single voice under the leadership of their negotiator, Michel Barnier. Contrary to the dire predictions of Brexiter Nigel Farage, the European Union will not evaporate as a consequence of Brexit. On the contrary, the European Union has proved the solidity of its construction. In a final word, Europe does exist and the Brexiters have experienced it.
The event was worth a special edition of our newsletter, including our latest analyses of Brexit’s impact on public opinion, its immediate consequences within the European Parliament, and a continuation of our many recent decryptions and media interventions of what remains, in essence, a sad chapter in the history of the European integration.
Director of the Institut Jacques Delors
(translation from french: Lauren Clark)