The EU is currently facing a number of existential challenges in 2016; ranging from the influx of millions of refugees from Africa and the Middle East to the fear of a second dip Eurozone crisis and last, but not least, the potential for the United Kingdom to leave the Union. All that is certain at the moment is that at some point before the end of 2017, British citizens will decide whether the United Kingdom should remain in the EU or whether it should do something revolutionary: become the first member state to leave the Union.
The costs (and benefits) of a Brexit (the neologism for the potential British exit) have been vigorously debated over the last several years with no clear consensus emerging. However, one thing is certain; a scenario where the United Kingdom leaves the EU will have massive ramifications both internally and externally. Furthermore, any sanguine scenario that sees the United Kingdom simply devolving out of the EU and becoming a quasi-member like Norway is unrealistic.
For the UK, the costs of a Brexit would run into the tens of billions, with one think tank putting an initial cost of £27 billion as the best case scenario and £70 billion as the worst. Furthermore, a Brexit would likely result in a further push for Scottish independence with a yes vote seen as a real possibility, a point recently acknowledge by Tony Blair. For the EU, a Brexit would remove the second largest (and perhaps the second most stable) economy from the Union; representing a 17% reduction in the EU’s economy. At a time when a number of EU economies remain threatened by ongoing financial crises, the departure of the United Kingdom could spark further instability and threaten the robustness of the EU economy.
The costs of a potential Brexit clearly outweigh the benefits, for both parties, when a sober cost-benefit analysis is undertaken. However, when nationalism, combined with romanticism of the nation-state and sovereignty, is added into the equation, it is easy to see why the United Kingdom could potentially leave the EU. The EU’s legitimacy deficit is arguably the greatest amongst the citizens of the United Kingdom, so despite the fact that most politicians, some begrudgingly, see the benefit of the United Kingdom remaining in the EU, leaving the decision to the public via a referendum, for better or for worse, potentially swings the decision towards a Brexit.
When considering the permutations of a Brexit, while there are few plausible (short-term at least) rosy outcomes for the United Kingdom, for the EU there may be a large long-term silver lining: removing a euro-sceptic party from an ongoing European integration project. It is fair to say that Britain has never been truly committed to the idea of deepening European integration. It was vehemently against the supranational logic of the Treaty of Rome in 1957 and only sought membership when its preferred alternatives, the transatlantic relationship and Commonwealth, proved to be inadequate (particularly when considering the immediate success of the European Community in the 1960s).
That is not to say the United Kingdom has not been a committed member of the EU, because, as history shows, it has – particularly evident in its support for the single market and the EU’s mega enlargement in 2004/7. However, this commitment has always been tempered by a belief that the deepening of integration should not only cease, but that some devolution of the Union to give back ceded sovereignty to the member states should also occur. That is partly why the United Kingdom refused to participate in the EU’s deepening integration in the 1990s and 2000s; namely the Schengen Agreement (providing a borderless EU) and the euro (a common currency for the EU).
Consequently, since its accession to the EC in 1973, the United Kingdom has acted as something of a euro-sceptic balance to the euro-optimism of the Franco-German quasi-alliance which has driven much of the EU’s evolution. Thus, removing the largest dissenting voice from the EU would potentially clear the way for the Franco-German engine – or perhaps, more aptly, German-Franco in today’s climate – to pursue its mutual desire for further integration, such as a potential deeper monetary to combat the ills of the Eurozone.
Indeed, the idea that the EU sans-Britain could integrate further may seem rather fanciful at this current juncture giving the clear rise of euro-scepticism, not only in the United Kingdom but across the continent, coupled with the aforementioned crises with refugees and the economy. However, the history of EU integration demonstrates a pertinent theme: greater European integration was always preceded by a crisis.
The harsh realities of World War II led to the radical idea of integration in the first place, while the economic and social unrest of the 1970s pushed the EU closer together in the 1980s, and the collapse of the Soviet Union (and the fear of German reunification) precipitated integration into areas of high politics in the 1990s. Add in that apart from Germany and perhaps France none of the other European could hope to be an influential world power, pursuing the EU experiment still makes sense for the member states in an emerging interpolar world: a system characterised by many competing powers linked together by a prevailing economic interdependence.
Therefore, while the challenges of here and now appear potentially overwhelming for the EU, one cannot bet against a stronger, more united EU emerging from the predicament, with or without the United Kingdom.
Nicholas Ross Smith is a PhD candidate in Politics & International Relations at the University of Auckland. His research concerns the EU’s foreign policy with a particular focus on the institutional dynamics of its foreign policy decision-making.