Viewed from France, the UK’s referendum on whether to leave the European Union has caused some consternation. French newspaper Le Monde has warned “Britain beware: Brexit could be your Waterloo”.
But the possibility of a Brexit could also be good news for both France – and for the future of the European Union.
“Leaving is quitting and I don’t think we’re quitters,” said David Cameron on June 7 in a TV debate ahead of the referendum. “I really fear if we leave that we are going to see the economy suffer,” he added. But this is still an understatement from the British prime minister, who is leading the campaign against a Brexit.
It seems obvious to many both in and outside the UK, that the country would lose a lot from a Brexit. The pound would lose value, the City would lose its appeal and new barriers would be a big blow to the country’s trade. The UK’s trade deficit is high and depends on free trade. More importantly, the UK would lose any influence over European rules and regulations but would still need to abide by them in order to trade with its main trading partner, the EU.
Theoretically, a Brexit should not cause a log jam in the workings of the European Union, because the withdrawal of a state is provided for under Article 50 of the EU Treaty. But, in practice, there could be a high ideological cost for the EU, coming after a series of recent crises: an influx of refugees and migrants, troubles in Greece, terrorist attacks and rising nationalism. Through the referendum, the British are pointedly questioning the EU’s ability and legitimacy to deal with these problems.
A crisis of the European idea
Whatever the outcome, Brexit has triggered a new ideological crisis in the EU, and may open a Pandora’s box of emerging nationalism elsewhere on the continent.
This has been made worse by the fact that the EU compromised some of its core values in the steps it took early this year to appease the UK. On February 19, the European Council agreed a deal with the UK on financial regulation and allowing Britain to provide a different access to social benefits for EU citizens. The only proposal Europe could make to the UK was for it to sleep in a different bedroom from the rest of the union. So if the UK remains in the EU it will be forever as a state that is “out” in principle and “in” when it wants to be.
As soon as the UK refused to agree any more with the project of “ever closer union”, the EU should have realised that – and just waited for the British people to make a decision. Particularly as Brexit could actually be a political advantage for the EU.
Brexit would provide some much needed clarity compared to the current “in-out” of Britain’s position on the Euro and the Schengen area of free movement. Brexit could even stop the danger of having a two-speed Europe, a Europe a la carte, that actually plays into the hands of eurosceptics. If the UK remains in the EU, other member states may be tempted to ask for the same kind of deal as the one that Cameron secured. This is a major threat to the EU’s consistency.
Those advocating for Britain to remain in the EU should be worried about this slow destruction of the European ideal. This would be a first victory for the eurosceptics who would then have a clear path to destroy the EU by arguing that the bloc can’t deal with the problems of terrorism, migration and unemployment. As a result, Brexit may actually be the best solution for pursuing European integration.
If the UK does decide to leave the EU, it will not happen for at least two years. To keep trading, it will need to negotiate bilateral trade agreements but these are likely to favour EU countries because the EU is the main trading partner of the UK. France was the UK’s fifth largest trading partner by imports in 2015, therefore a free trade agreement is likely to be necessary for Britain to keep buying French goods. France’s trade balance with the UK is positive, meaning that the British depend all the more on French exports. This would give the French government an advantage in the negotiation.
In the case of a Brexit, France will also have an opportunity to rebuild influence on a new political European stage and strengthen its relationship with Germany to relaunch the project of European integration.
Whatever the result of the referendum, the EU will have to reinvent itself: a retreat into nationalistic isolation is not viable in a globalised world. So, it’s not crazy to hope that if Brexit does happen, it could help the EU reform from within.
Clément Louis Kolopp also contributed to this article.