The UK is leaving the European Union. British citizens are still divided and still deeply emotional about the whole thing. While some will be popping Champagne come Brexit time, others will be weeping into the blue-and-gold flags.
The remaining EU member states, meanwhile, are taking the breakup in good grace, emphasizing that the two sides will remain the best of friends. The EU, rather than playing the scorned victim, is reacting to its rejection with warmth and sympathy.
In other words, the way many are reading today’s events are silly old Britain threw its toys out the pram and the cuddly EU is taking the whole thing in its stride with great dignity.
There is certainly an extent to which this is true. But it ignores the true state of the EU in 2020.
Brexit was a game that took place on the EU’s home turf in front of a home crowd. The whole thing was negotiated in Brussels where, essentially, the UK stood alone against 27 member states and the EU’s most powerful institutions.
Brexit was a chance for the EU to show itself at its most powerful. But as the world moves on from Brexit, the EU has problems that reveal its weak spots.
Let’s start with the unity of the EU27. Sure, they all agreed on Brexit. But what about the rule of law in European nations? What about the European Court of Justice’s supremacy over member states? Recent events in Poland have shown that if a member state wants to ignore EU law and effectively set up its own judicial system, there is very little the EU as an institution can do about it if the rest of the member states don’t want to single anyone out. Which, of course, they don’t.
Next, there’s the EU’s place in the world. The EU loves to present itself as one of the key pillars of power in the new world order. Before Donald Trump entered the White House, the EU could point to the Iran nuclear deal as evidence of its position on the world stage. But it has so far been unable to get any of the key players in that deal back around the table. The talking shop that the EU provided in 2015 to get the deal done proved to be just that: a place for those who really hold power to talk.
And who are those that really hold the power? The US and China. The EU’s chief foreign policy at the moment is to balance its relations with both China and the US. However, as tensions persist between the two in their battle for global supremacy, the EU increasingly risks being squashed between the two.
Finally, there is the actual state of the union itself. We know that few member states agree on the future of the EU. And we know that Euroskeptic parties are on the rise across the bloc. The danger for the EU is that those parties don’t want to Do A Brexit and walk away like the Brits. They want to take the whole thing over and eat it from the inside. And if you want to understand how absurd that could get in the coming years, the EU could end up in a position where the UK obeys more EU law than some member states — which the EU will be largely unable to do anything about.
So, happy Brexit day one and all. Things are about to get more complicated for the UK, sure. But you’d have to be some kind of sadist to seek power in Brussels right now.