Note: The following views expressed have not been officially endorsed by College Democrats of New York. They represent only the thoughts and concerns of the author. All voices, even dissenting ones, remain a vital part of our democracy.
Our allies across the pond recently saw a simple question on a referendum ballot: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” The answer shocked europhiles and pleased euroskeptics; with a turnout rate of 72.2%, the people voted to “Leave” the European Union 51.9% to 48.1%.
Some see the Brexit vote as the beginning of the end for the very concept of the EU. It represents another victory for the wave of nationalism and radical conservatism that has swept through the continent over the past few years, putting down roots through the Front National (France), Alternative fur Deutschland (Germany), and the Jobbik (Hungary). Similar referendum desires have spawned in France, Sweden, Spain, Italy, and Greece, particularly among the youth. Will there be a Frexit? Swexit? Grexit? Brexit will cause a significant decline in economic development within both the EU and UK in the short run. Prime Minister David Cameron has promised to step down from office by October with former London mayor, Boris Johnson potentially replacing him.
Is Europe at the end of an era of unprecedented collaboration between its own countries? Is the extrapolation of Westphalian principles beyond simple intercountry relations to the more recent projection of them onto the global stage through regional supranational organizations over? Is there any silver lining in the Brexit vote at all?
The Brexit vote provides the groundwork to create a stronger European Union without the United Kingdom. The country defiantly chose not to use the official euro currency in 2002. The UK refused to join the Schengen area that allows free movement of EU citizens throughout the region in 1985. The UK scoffed at an EU proposed “fiscal compact” to coordinate efforts across the Eurozone to recover from the Great Recession. The UK opted out of a resettlement plan that dealt with the relocation of African and Middle Eastern migrants in response to the ongoing refugee crisis in 2015. The UK faithfully followed fulfilled the vision that Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had: a strong Britain to combat the growth of a “European superstate.” For a nation who should have been part of the EU “team,” the UK certainly does not have a record of being a team player.
The coming negotiations with the EU do not place the UK at the head of the table. The UK chose to leave the table after all. Why should they retain a privileged spot at it? Although Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel stated that the vote of the British people should be upheld, European Parliament leaders have made it clear that there is no apparent reason for the UK remain in the EU as a full member until October. When Nigal Farage, leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party that sought Brexit, spoke in front the European Parliament, he endured nothing but ridicule. The EU wants a quick end to Brexit and who would disagree with them? A long drawn out battle with the EU leaves uncertainty which does not serve well with potential investors and businesses looking to expand in both areas. What parent knowing that their child’s Band-Aid must come off, tears it off slowly and carefully, watching the child wince in pain?
Speed does not equal leniency, however. If the UK can leave the European Union with relative ease, what is to say Greece will not follow, starting an unwinding process that could unravel the entire continent. The EU must remember its past when dealing with the UK. Norway is not a full member of the EU, but was required to accept the free movement of EU people in order to take part in the Single Market. They also agreed to contribute to the EU’s budget under a negotiated special arrangement. Switzerland underwent a web of treaties that leaves it a participant in the Single Market, but not a member of the EU. Switzerland is also required to accept the free movement of EU citizens throughout its border. The EU would be justified, therefore, if it required the UK to accept the free movement of EU people throughout the region in order to have any access to the Single Market. Harsh? Maybe, but then you should not have left the EU where you had the opportunity to raise a dissenting voice.
The EU is not perfect, however, but now more than ever is the best time to seek reforms. The EU must address the ongoing problem of allowing the growth of increased levels of bureaucracy that seem at odds with the very principles of democracy. It must address the east-west and north-south divide that has plagued the organization almost since its very foundation. The EU must instill its tolerant inclusiveness at the local and national levels where more and more politicians, seeking their own personal gain, feed on the irrational fears produced by increased non-European immigration. Addressing these issues not only leaves a stronger EU without the UK, but it works to eradicate the potential that another country would follow in the UK’s footsteps.
History has shown that Europeans unite around a powerful unifier. Prussia in Germany and Piedmont in Italy transcended regional tensions to create larger, more holistic nation-states. With a Brexit, the situation is ripe for a new power to begin the process of greater integration. It is much easier to complete a task without a boisterous detractor who continually seeks to undermine the process. The European dream to pursue an “ever closer union” – which David Cameron successfully negotiated to have his country exempted from just this past February – may become an easier reality to strive towards. The EU will face economic volatility in the coming months and years regardless of the eventual outcome of negotiations with the UK. A strong, decisive EU plan to combat this uncertainty would represent a clear step towards reaching such a union. Easier said than done, but the potential still exists.
The British people have a lot to think about. So does Europe. The economic unity that Europe has achieved in its past remains unprecedented in its history. Not since the days of the Holy Roman Empire have such large spans of Europe been united under a supranational government of any kind. Brexit leaves the Continent at an important cross-road. One road leads to even stronger economic and political solidarity and integration without the United Kingdom as a member of the European Union. The other looks eerily similar to the aftermath of the fall of the Holy Roman Empire: a weakened, divisive Europe unable to hold itself together yet again.
Ryan Trumbauer is a sophomore at New York University studying Politics and Economics. He is currently the Treasurer at NYU College Democrats and sits on the E-board of College Democrats of New York as Region Chair for New York City.