As we look ahead to the culmination of Britain’s efforts to leave the European Union, it is also worth looking back on the process that brought us to this moment. This collection offers a series of short essays that were written as events unfolded alongside a clutch of articles that try to put Britain’s departure from the European Union in a wider theoretical and historical context.
Extending the Brexit process would create difficulties for the rest of Europe that have not received sufficient attention. The EU might seek to resolve these difficulties in ways that create further problems for the UK.
The debate about whether Britain should remain a member of the European Union has taken place within a number of different rhetorical frames. Of these, ‘taking back control’ has been the most powerful. Anyone could understand what was at stake and take a position in the debate. As the debate about membership became a process of leaving, however, ‘taking back control’ became more confusing as a frame for the conversation. Over the past two years it has been hard to determine who is taking back control, how much control can be repatriated, and how much – under any circumstances – the British people will remain constrained and perhaps even powerless to shape their own destiny.
On 4 December 2018, United States (U.S.) Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo gave a speech at the German Marshall Fund in Brussels about ‘restoring the role of the nation-state in the liberal international order.’ At the core of that speech, he posed a fundamental challenge to world order: ‘Every nation – every nation – must honestly acknowledge its responsibilities to its citizens and ask if the current international order serves the good of its people as well as it could. And if not, we must ask how we can right it.’ He insisted that: ‘nothing can replace the nation-state as the guarantor of democratic freedoms and national interests.’ And he went on to explain: ‘Our mission is to reassert our sovereignty, reform the liberal international order, and we want our friends to help us and to exert their sovereignty as well. We aspire to make the international order serve our citizens – not to control them.’ In the language of the most recent U.S. national security strategy, this perspective on world affairs is characterized as ‘principled realism’. Pompeo describes it more simply as ‘common sense’. While Pompeo is right that his view is common, he is wrong to believe in its realism or even that it makes sense.
The past decade has witnessed a sudden uptick in secessionist movements in Europe. The uptick started on the western side of the continent with the 2009 Belgian elections, where the New Flemish Alliance emerged as the largest party in the country; further to the east, we might point to the Russian invasion and partition of Georgia. Flemings, Abkhazians, and South Ossetians rarely fall in the same category for analysis. Nevertheless, there is something they have in common that warrants exploration. Moreover, that something is shared by the Scots, the Catalans, and the Russian-speakers in Crimea and the Donbass region.
The British government faced another crisis in the House of Commons this week over Brexit, having found a way to stave off the crisis it faced the week before. Both the country and its political parties appear deeply divided over whether the remain in the European Union or to leave. As we know from the June 2016 referendum, the ‘leave’ voters have a narrow majority. The ‘remain’ voters lost. And while the facts on the ground appear to point inexorably toward a British exit, the choice is still far from settled. The reason for this indecisiveness is fundamental. As the British have learned over the two years, Brexit is about more than just their relations with Europe. It is about who makes decisions in a liberal democracy.
The United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union (EU) creates new opportunities for Europeans to unite around a common vision. The British played an important role in Europe both as a common market and as a political union. The challenge for the remaining member states will be to adapt to Great Britain’s absence. Last autumn, French President Emmanuel Macron launched an ambitious raft of proposals for reenergizing the European project. More recently, German Chancellor Angela Merkel forged a grand-coalition government with a different pro-European agenda. Macron’s vision is more centralist and involves more institutionalized solidarity; Merkel’s vision is more intergovernmental and places more emphasis on political responsibility at the national level. The success of either approach will depend upon how other European member states respond to the call for unity. The next Italian government will play a critical role.