As the dust continues to swirl around the momentous Brexit referendum result a month ago (and doesn’t show any signs of settling anytime soon) I suspect many EU sympathisers will be somewhere in the middle of the various stages of the Kübler-Ross Grief cycle: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. So, somewhat incongruosly, are the ‘leavers’. Whereas there are almost as many emotions being experienced on all sides as there are potential options on what will happen next both in terms of the UK’s future relationship with the EU as well as the future of the EU itself, in this post I want to set out a number of (pro-EU) reasons – some obvious, some optimistic, others wildly speculative – to be cheerful amidst the uncertainty created by the Brexit vote.
- It is worth reminding ourselves that (a version of) the EU existed before the UK joined in 1972 (with Denmark and Ireland) and it will survive its withdrawal. Brexit will not have the same effect as one of the founding six, and particularly say Germany or France, leaving the bloc.
- The feared domino effect of other Member States agitating to leave has not transpired. Indeed post-Brexit opinion polls have shown a bounce in support for the EU in other EU Member states since Brexit.
- Even were an in/out referendum to be held in another EU Member state, there are good reasons to believe (barring unforeseeable ‘exogenous shocks’) that a majority would not vote to leave. No other EU Member State has a national media so relentlessly hostile to the EU as the UK. The UK’s top-two selling national newspapers (with a combined circulation as much as the next three put together) are rabidly anti-EU and a study released during the referendum campaign found that even the UK’s supposedly ‘neutral’ state broadcaster, the BBC, had been overwhelmingly negative about the EU over the past fifteen years. Against this heavily Eurosceptic background, there was still only 3% difference between leave and remain in the referendum result. This augurs well for an EU referendum in an EU Member state with a less hostile media.
- The referendum and its aftermath has increased curiosity, interest and knowledge about the EU and what it does among many previously disinterested EU citizens. Most obviously in the UK where google reported a sharp rise in searches asking was ‘What is the EU?’, albeit that this was after the polls had closed. Admittedly, much of this knowledge and information is starting from a pretty low base but any improvement has to be a good thing for the EU.
- Ever since the last British government passed the EU Act 2011, which requires referendums in the UK on certain future reforms at EU level, future EU reform would have been considerably hamstrung by the UK through the floating of a ‘referendum veto’ at every turn in negotiations. An actual referendum on future EU reform, even reform which would have been disproportionality advantageous to the UK, would have been very unlikely to succeed given the general eurosceptic feeling in the UK as exemplified in the Brexit referendum result. Future negotiations would therefore have involved even more protracted wrangling over EU reform than is usually the case, with increasingly less patience with the UK among other EU Member States. In the Brexit result, future EU reform has dodged a considerably large UK-shaped bullet allowing for better reform at the EU level at a time when it needs to be efficient and decisive in the face of the many issues it currently faces.
- The Brexit vote has put EU legitimacy back on the agenda (again!). It provides a useful time to reflect on the broader legitimacy of the EU, particularly from the viewpoint of citizen knowledge about, and engagement with, the EU. Vital lessons can be learned from the way in which the EU was presented as well as misrepresented in the Brexit campaign debates and the extent to which EU questions tend to be dominated by domestic political concerns. This should feed into analysis and reflection on the never-ending project that is the enhancement of the EU’s legitimacy. Furthermore, unlike the high-stakes, pressure-cooker atmosphere of the eurocrisis, the Brexit vote has been followed by an important ‘cooling down’ period (helped considerably by Cameron’s decision not to push the Art. 50 button on his resignation) which allows for more probing and searching analysis into these big questions and better solutions to be developed.