The future of the EU 27: Bowed but not broken after Brexit

Brussels – Britain’s exit from the European Union has shaken Brussels and sent shockwaves around the globe. Yet some say that Brexit might focus European minds on the need to reform and re-energize the bloc and quell populist forces.

With Britain having officially triggered exit negotiations, the reality of lengthy wrangling over the terms of Brexit has started to sink in, adding yet more cloud to the EU’s already troubled horizon.

But could the pressure of Brexit benefit the EU? Stefan Lehne, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe and former director general for political affairs at the Austrian Ministry for European and International Affairs, thinks so.

“With a bit of luck, I think the EU might be on a better path by the time that the United Kingdom leaves,” Lehne told dpa.

“There will still be 27 member states. I don’t see anybody following the example of the United Kingdom.”

Lehne’s comments echo those of European Council President Donald Tusk, who said there was “paradoxically … something positive” in Brexit.

“Brexit has made us, the community of 27, more determined and more united than before,” Tusk said.

Unity among the remaining 27 members is desperately needed, with Brexit just one of several pressures mounting on the EU.

The bloc faces internal turmoil over the rising threat of terrorism, financial troubles in the eurozone and the lack of solidarity over the migrant crisis, all of which have contributed to an increase in eurosceptic populism in member states.

From the outside, the EU is under pressure from Russia’s unpredictability and weakened relations with the US following the advent of the Trump administration.

Leaders of the remaining 27 member states acknowledged these “unprecedented challenges” during a summit in Rome in March 2017, where they celebrated the 60th anniversary of the EU’s founding treaty and pledged to address those issues through “even greater unity and solidarity.”

Lehne said that Brexit, which was propelled by anti-EU populist voices, and the election of US President Donald Trump, who dubbed himself “Mr Brexit” in the run-up to the US elections, have actually had a sobering effect on EU citizens.

“The shock of the election of Donald Trump and Brexit has brought people back to the mainstream,” Lehne said.

He noted that Europeans were now taking stock of the benefits provided them by the EU, which Lehne says was evident in the lower-than-expected support for far-right populist Geert Wilders in the March 2017 Dutch elections.

“Before the Dutch elections, it was all ‘gloom and doom’ and ‘the end is near’,” Lehne said. “This kind of extremely negative, fearful mindset has already lifted.”

He notes that, “with a bit of luck,” pro-EU parties will achieve overwhelming victories in France and Germany, which can lead to the renewal of the Franco-German axis as the engine of the EU.

Franco-German cooperation could kick-start reforms

Cooperation between Berlin and Paris has stalled in recent years, mainly due to differences in approach to the eurozone crises. While Germany has called for tighter rules and controls on budget deficits, France has advocated increased flexibility and more investment.

Franco-German cooperation could kick-start reforms to the bloc by 2018, helping the EU to solve issues like the financial troubles in the eurozone and the deadlock over the migration crisis, Lehne added.

The divisions created by countries like Hungary and Poland, who have grown increasingly critical of the leadership in Brussels and aimed to repatriate powers, were “not going to go away very quickly,” Lehne said.

“In terms of their conception of Europe, I think they are outsiders – [and] likely to remain so,” he said. “The mainstream will understand – on some issues, at least – you need to deepen integration to move towards a stronger, even more centralized position.”

By Emoke Bebiak