The silver lining of Brexit for Europe


PARIS – It’s finally done. On January 1st with the Brexit After the transition period, Great Britain will no longer be part of the internal market and the customs union of the European Union. The departure is arranged, thanks to a Last minute offer with more than 1,200 pagesbut still painful for both sides. A great loss is made.

The loss to the European Union of one of its largest member states, a major economy, a robust military and the, albeit stalled, tradition of British liberalism at a time when Hungary and Poland are turning to nationalism.

Loss of diplomatic weight for Britain in a world of renewed great power rivalry; some future economic growth; Clarity on European access for its large financial services industry; and countless opportunities to study, live, work and dream across the continent.

The national call of “take control” that the Brexit Voting in an outburst of anti-immigrant zeal and arbitrary complaints withered in four and a half years of painful negotiations in which a minnow competed against a mammoth. Posing met reality. The UK economy is less than a fifth the size of the bloc. President Trump is stepping down, and with him goes all hope of a swiftly redeeming British-American trade deal.

“Brexit is an act of mutual weakening,” said Michel Barnier, the European Union’s chief negotiator, of the French daily Le Figaro.

But the weakening is uneven. Britain is closer to the break. The possibility that Scotland and Northern Ireland will choose to leave the UK and otherwise re-join the European Union has increased. The block, on the other hand, was in a way caused by the trauma of the Brexit. It has overcome longstanding obstacles, raised its ambitions and rekindled the Franco-German engine of a closer union.

“Brexit is not good news for anyone, but it has undoubtedly contributed to a re-consolidation of Europe that has demonstrated its unity during the negotiations,” said French Foreign Ministry Secretary General François Delattre.

The European Union – spurred on by Brexit, in the face of the coronavirus pandemic and the hostility of Mr Trump – has done things that were previously unimaginable. It has taken steps in a quasi-federal direction that Britain has always opposed.

Germany has given up a stubborn austerity policy. The federalization of European debts, which had long been taboo for the Germans, became possible. The European Union can now borrow like a government does – a step towards sovereignty and a means of funding the $ 918 billion pandemic recovery fund that a UK presence would likely have blocked.

“Brexit has moved Angela Merkel to give up sacred positions,” said Karl Kaiser, former chairman of the German Council for Foreign Policy. “There has been a debate about enlarging or deepening the European Union for a long time. Well, it has deepened. “

Part of this process was a rethinking of the role of Europe. French President Emmanuel Macron now often speaks of the need for “strategic autonomy”. At the center of this idea is the conviction that, in the face of Russia and China and the US whose unreliability has become evident, Europe must develop its military weapons to underpin independent policies. European soft power only goes so far.

“Who would have said three years ago that Europe would hold on to budget restructuring through debt-sharing and strategic military and technological autonomy so quickly?” Mr Macron told the French weekly L’Express in December. “That is important, because France’s fate lies in a sovereign Europe.” He alluded to an autonomous Europe operating “alongside America and China”, a telling phrase.

Military autonomy is a long way off, probably a pipe dream. The ties of the Central and Eastern European states to NATO and thus to the United States as a European power are strong. Germany recognizes the need for an adjusted transatlantic bond, but does not question the bond itself. In the end, neither does France.

Nonetheless, in 2020, through its European Defense Fund, the European Union agreed to invest more than US $ 10 billion in jointly developed military equipment, technology and increased mobility. Not much and less than planned, but enough to suggest a new European mindset. If France and Germany are planning a “euro drone”, something has shifted.

This change will almost certainly create tension between the European Union and the new administration of President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr., who, as one official put it, “is part of the Euro-American decor”.

Mr. Biden, who has been a regular at the Munich Security Conference for decades, is through education and experience a man with a traditional view of the alliance: The United States leads, allies join. But the world has changed. The impact of the Trump years and an AWOL in America during the global crisis caused by the pandemic cannot be denied.

“You can only lose trust once,” said Nicole Bacharan, a French political scientist. “When it’s gone, it’s gone. We learned that an American president can easily undo things. “

Most European governments are happy that Mr Trump is leaving. They believe American decency has returned in Mr. Biden. They don’t necessarily equate their relief with a long honeymoon, though, even if the new president and Antony J. Blinken, his candidate for Foreign Minister, are aware that times have changed and that solving big problems requires the multilateralism of give and take that Trump eschews.

In China politics, in Iran, in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in climate issues, a Europe that is girded by the experience of an American president who despised NATO and pampered Russia will be more self-confident. France and Germany have already worked together on an extensive dossier on all major international issues and handed it over to officials in the future Biden government.

Of course, the ailing European Union that spawned Brexit and growing nationalism has not disappeared. A union that is perceived as too bureaucratic and not democratic enough. The divisions that plague a unit now 27, with 19 of those countries sharing a currency but none of them sharing a government will not go away.

Yet the European Union has been dragged into a new sense of its worth. Brexit looks like an isolated incident. The nations of Europe have seen up close that a divorce is always a defeat – and so is a negotiation that ends in new barriers.

Britain’s decision to leave was typical of its era. An act inspired by an imaginary past, carried by an imaginary future, charged by social media and made possible by the withered hold of the truth. It was a failure of the dream of a “United States of Europe” – on the continent that British and American troops died to liberate it from the Nazis – first articulated in 1946 by Winston Churchill when he spoke of a free Europe , the “simple” offers joys and hopes that make life worth living. “

Everyone in Europe and the UK has lost something. But as Jean Monnet, one of the founding fathers of what would later become the European Union, remarked: “Europe makes itself in a crisis.”

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