It seems that the repercussions of the upcoming exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union, for the British economy and state, could be not just negative. Early signs, such as the steep drop of the pound and many British shares or the announced resignation of David Cameron as Prime-Minister on June 24, 2016, indicate that they might be even disastrous for the Kingdom. The Brexit vote has started a period of uncertainty which could hit trade, investment, finance, and businesses in the UK harder than many expected. Not only are the overall economic repercussions of the Brexit for the UK thus difficult to foresee. It becomes more and more feasible that a new Scottish referendum on independence will be held, and that even Northern Ireland will also decide to hold a referendum on leaving the UK. The summary impact of the various after-effects of the UK’s vote to leave the EU may mean nothing less than the end of the British state as we knew it.
While June 23, 2016, may thus become a black day in contemporary British history, one wonders what exactly the Brexit vote will, in the end, mean for the European Union. The possibly grave effects of the exit for the UK have a double meaning. Most observers tend to see the British “Leave” vote as a disaster for the European project, as a major European power saying farewell to the EU. But things might be more complicated than that. A British exit from the EU might—if seen in cynical terms—be more beneficial for the cause of Europe than an ambivalent decision to stay.
European integration has, over the last 60 years, been a dialectical process full of ups and downs. To be sure, the course of the emergence of the current EU has seen numerous failures, deadlocks, and crises. Yet, more often than not, these calamities tended, after some while, to turn into curiously progressive impulses for a deepening of the integration process. For instance, the period of stagnation in the development of the European Communities in the 1970s-1980s that became known as “Eurosclerosis” resulted, in the late 1980s, in a new integration drive that eventually brought about the formation of the EU, first as a common roof of the communities in the early 1990s, and later as a fully integrated and partially supranational organization. In general, much of the progress in European integration since the end of World War II only happened after earlier frustrating setbacks. Even the birth in 1951 of the European Steel and Coal Community, as the first precursor of today’s Union, was preceded by the apparent failure of the previously founded Council of Europe to turn into an effective pan-European organization.
A British exit from the EU might—if seen in cynical terms—be more beneficial for the cause of Europe than an ambivalent decision to stay.
Given this peculiar experience, one wonders what might be the strategic effect of the Brexit for the future of European integration. Will the British “Leave” vote—if it turns out to be a politically suicidal decision—really be that bad for the project of a united Europe? Britain is today turning into a kind of political guinea-pig. Its possibly sad fate will, in the coming years, illustrate to the public of many EU member countries the grave effects of a rejection of the EU. If even as strong a European country as the UK will be hit hard by an exit or will break apart, then what would be the effect of an exit on such countries as Denmark, the Netherlands, or Hungary? The worse the Brexit is going to affect Britain, the weaker the argument of the Euroskeptic populists in many smaller countries will become.
Right-wing populism will become vulnerable to references to the empirical reality and critical situation of the UK after the Brexit vote. As a result, the Union’s overall attractiveness may, to many ambivalent citizens of the EU, become more obvious. Britain’s presumably significant and lasting problems will also send strong signals outside the EU. They will demonstrate across the globe the importance of the Union for Europe’s and for the world’s future. Good Europeans—perhaps even some British ones—might thus see the vote on June 23 philosophically: While starting a rather difficult period in British history, the Brexit vote may kick-start a fruitful discussion of, and provide new impulse to, deeper European integration. If the European Union becomes stronger as a result of these developments, even England and Wales may one day decide to rejoin again.