The United Kingdom’s referendum vote to leave the European Union has opened a Pandora’s box of options for their future relationship. Most of them look distinctly uncomfortable.
Whatever happens, the negotiations between the UK and its partners to disentangle 43 years of ever-closer integration in the institutions of the EU are going to be very complicated, prolonged, and potentially fractious. They could well bring most other strategic decision-making in London and Brussels to a standstill for years on end. With each passing day, lawyers and civil servants are discovering new subjects that will have to be agreed – by 28 different countries – just for Britain to leave the EU, before it can formally begin to negotiate future economic and trade relations.
At this stage, the new UK government led by Theresa May has not even agreed on what sort of relationship it wants to have with its former partners, let alone whether it is capable of winning their backing for a mutually beneficial deal. Although the prime minister has blandly asserted that ‘Brexit means Brexit’, that empty phrase does nothing to define the reality that is likely to be finally agreed somewhere around the mid-2020s.
Fourteen years hence, in 2030, the alternative outcomes are starkly contrasting. At one extreme, there is the sunny optimism of Brexiters who insist that bilateral free trade deals can be easily negotiated with the entire world, and with the EU-27 as well, leaving all more comfortable and prosperous.
On the other hand, the worst-case scenario feared by many who voted to remain is that Brexit could easily trigger fragmentation of both the UK and the EU, and tip the European continent back into an era of competing nationalism.
Kwasi Kwarteng, a pro-Brexit Conservative MP, is an historian and an optimist. London has been a global centre of finance for 300 years, and Britain has been a maritime power for even longer, he argues. After Brexit, he is cheerfully confident that the country can and should become a real global player once again, freed from a sluggish Europe.
Ian Bremmer, an American political scientist, is more pessimistic, both about the long-term cohesion of the EU, and about the ability of the UK to bounce back from its disengagement. Brexit will deal a significant and lasting blow to London as a financial centre, he fears, and the UK will have less influence globally as a non-EU member.
Both the UK and its EU partners face very similar challenges in the coming decades. One is coping with increasing migration flows – of both refugees and economic migrants from the Middle East and Africa.
The Brexit vote was heavily influenced by a backlash against immigration, although youthful migrants have contributed to UK economic growth and boosted tax revenues. Immigrants have also helped meet the challenge of an ageing population – a Europe-wide demographic problem.
Will the UK be more capable on its own in tackling environmental damage and climate change, in ensuring energy security, tackling cross-border crime and terrorism, and ensuring stability in its immediate neighbourhood? Cooperation will be essential in resolving them all.
One possible scenario is for the ‘separate’ UK to flourish, while the rest of the EU flounders. But the opposite could also be true: a flourishing Europe and a floundering UK.
British sceptics have all too often sought to predict the demise of the European ‘project’, underestimating the determination of its members to ensure the survival of what the Germans call a Schicksalsgemeinschaft – a common destiny. There is no majority in any other country likely to vote to pull out, but there is a clear impetus for more democratic control of the EU institutions.
The Brexit vote has exposed a series of deep divisions in UK society – between young and old, rich and poor, and geographically: England and Wales voted Leave, while Scotland and Northern Ireland – as well as the ‘city state’ of London – voted very clearly for Remain. Brexit could well precipitate a new move to Scottish independence, followed by a surge in support for Irish unification.
Leaving the EU will not resolve those UK divisions. They are domestic issues and require domestic solutions. What the UK needs by 2030 is the basis for a new constitutional settlement. It might very well be easier to accomplish from inside rather than outside the EU. Let us hope it is not too late.