What are we supposed to make of Brexit? Can we even judge something that hasn’t happened yet? Shouldn’t we wait until the UK has actually “Brexited” before we start asking whether it has been a success (and what could have been done differently)?
The problem is that Brexit has no obvious end. It’s becoming clear that Brexit is a process and not an event. There may be an enormous public appetite, both in Britain and on the continent, to get Brexit over and done with, to finally have a cathartic “Brexit day” that marks a clean break between the UK’s old relationship with Europe and the new. Yet even a so-called “no deal” Brexit won’t be the end of it.
Now that the genie is out of the bottle, there is no way to put it back. The issue is so divisive that even a second referendum is unlikely to settle the matter. So, we can’t wait until Brexit is “done” to start evaluating it. We need to be thinking about Brexit now, what it means, and whether it is working.
What do our readers think? We had a comment sent in from Nando, arguing that if the European Union ignores the “lesson of Brexit” then we will inevitably see referendums on EU membership take place in other countries. However, we also had a comment sent in from Yasmine suggesting that the “lesson” from Brexit has been that voting against EU membership is a disaster, because the process has been so humiliating for the UK.
So, what are the lessons we can draw from Brexit? To get a response, we spoke to Julie Smith, a British Liberal Democrat peer and Director of the European Centre in the Department of Politics and International Studies at Cambridge University. What would she say?
One of the problems facing pro-Europeans in the UK, and I suspect in a lot of the other 27 as well, is complacency; there is a sense that membership of the European Union is the norm, that right-minded, ‘small l’ liberals will think that membership of the European Union is inevitably a good thing, and we don’t need either to talk about it or justify it.
By contrast, those who are opposed to European integration or want it to change in a much more nation-state direction have been willing to debate it for years. And we’ve seen political parties and the media, particularly in the UK but also elsewhere, trying to chip away at that pro-European norm. So there needs to be, I think, a move away from complacency and a willingness to explain what the European Union is about, how it works, and why it matters for citizens. Because it’s become seen as too technocratic, and that is, in many ways, because national political leaders have been unwilling to explain the benefits of integration so they’ve rubbished the EU if policies are unpopular, and may have claimed for themselves the credit for successful policies. What we need is a bit more openness and transparency from national leaders being willing to explain a little bit more about Europe and how member-states and the European institutions are interconnected. It isn’t ‘us’ versus ‘them’, and that needs to be made much clearer to ordinary citizens. So, less complacency, more transparency.
To get another perspective, we put the same question to Erik Jones, Professor of European Studies and International Political Economy and Director of European and Eurasian Studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). How would he respond?
Well, the European Union is already learning a huge number of lessons from Brexit, particularly about the relationship between direct democracy and representative democracy; we keep having these referendums on Europe, and in not all ways are these referendums ending up the way people who called them expect them to end up. The British situation is particularly dramatic, but we’ve seen similar situations in Ireland, in Denmark, in the Netherlands, and in France. And I think there’s a real question now about what is the role of this kind of direct democracy in the process of European integration, and how should that role be balanced relative to representative democracy, where our elected officials make decisions that they then have to take accountability for?
So, I think that’s probably the most important lesson. There are others are well. I think the most difficult lesson that everyone’s learned is how much the European Union really remains a peace project, as opposed to just an economic project. I think that’s definitely worth underscoring.
What lessons can the EU learn from Brexit? Are pro-Europeans too complacent about the benefits of European integration? Are there lessons about the balance between direct democracy and representative democracy? Was Brexit a warning not to take the electorate for granted? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!