A (mis)managed divorce? Where Britain and Europe are headed post-BrexitThe results of the Brexit referendum means the British and their European counterparts should rebuild their lives. What does the Leave outcome promise for both the UK and EU, even their neighborhood?

Ms. Aydan Karimli, an expert on political economics from London tries to bring some insight into this issue.

 

Interviewer: Murad Muradov

 

 

Muradov: After the Brexit vote, a sense of uncertainty and dismay has taken over Britain. Do you think that the results of the referendum are already irreversible? Or one can expect Parliamentary refusal to ratify them?

 

Karimli: The word “uncertainty” neatly describes everything that is happening in the British politics and society right now, and well so due to the factthat it is not clear yet whether the results of the referendum are already irreversible. The legal grounds to hold the vote binding are lacking; moreover, the very process of withdrawal from the European Union under Article 50 may be initiated exclusively upon the Parliamentary approval, while the clear majority of the British Parliament are reportedly pro-Remain. Hence, there is a clear legal possibility to downplay the popular vote results.

 

 

But how politically viable is such a U-turn?

 

This question is quite complicated, first of all because both major parties are divided within themselves on this matter. However after all this imbroglio with numerous resignations by prominent politicians and polarization of opinion on the scale unseen before, the Parliamentary disapproval of the popular vote may only exacerbate the situation. Presumably, the most likely solution was an unwritten compromise to leave the final decision for the discretion of the new Prime Minister to cool down tempers a little bit. However, Theresa May’s claim that “Brexit is Brexit” eliminated the possibility. Another possible scenario would be the outcome of unsuccessful negotiations, especially in the light of the latest appointment of the foreign secretary, which would not fundamentally reverse Brexit, but rather minimize the economically reckless demands of the “Leave” camp and opt for the closest possible relations between the UK and the EU, without full membership.

 

 

What character is the negotiation process likely to assume? Do you think that Brussels may try to push Britain far from the EU just to teach the other unenthusiastic EU members a lesson?

 

The initial consolidated reaction of Brussels was to push Britain to start negotiations as soon as possible. In fact, European leaders have not yet formed their final opinion on the chief motive behind the Brexit, sticking to the 2 major arguments: 1) unwillingness to pay contribution to the European budget; 2) negative attitudes towards increasing immigration from the EU countries.

While the European single market is equally important for the both sides, the principle of free movement of people, broadly disliked in Britain is an inalienable part of it. While Brussels will most likely propose something along the lines of the Norway and Switzerland modes of cooperation to London, the ruling Tories that before the referendum had tried hard to win concessions on the issue of labor movement, will hardly acquiesce to them. And taking into account the abundance of problems arising for Britain in short term, the EU should not be too fearful that Brexit would trigger a chain reaction across Europe.

 

 

Britain is known for its ambivalent position on many strategic issues of the European policy. Do you think that with London outside of the EU, the initiatives on common economic policy, European defense or Europol are likely to gain a new momentum?

 

Indeed, London, staying outside of the Eurozone and the Schengen area, has not been a major political decision-maker within the organization. If the United Kingdom leaves, the “dissenting” coalition within the EU (including such countries as the Netherlands or Sweden) will lose its crucial player capable of blocking decisions, and this can make decision-making substantially easier. We can expect the weight of Franco-German collective initiatives to increase dramatically. Unless certain  unlikely events, such  as, say, the election of a populist leader like Marine Le Pen in France, some controversial issues, notably European migration policy, will definitely gain an important momentum.

 

 

And what about the European defense policy? Britain’s role thereby is often considered contradictory: on one side, it is probably the only world-class military power in Europe except for France, on the other, London has never been very keen on developing military cooperation outside of the NATO framework.

 

Yes, the UK disposes an army that is the 5th in the world in terms of its military capacity, and its withdrawal from the EU will strain ambitious plans for expanding European defense policy. While decision-making on military issues may indeed become somewhat easier, as most of the remaining 27 EU members endorse European defense policy, regional and global security challenges will now be more difficult to react. Persisting instability in the Middle East that has already put Brussels before a tough test, will definitely increase humanitarian pressure on Europe. Brexit will also strain the EU defense budget meaning more expenditure by the remaining members. Similar to the migration policy, the issue is to be taken seriously as it is likely to be instrumental in determining whether the majority of Member States want more or less Europe.

 

 

Economically, which party is likely to suffer more from the divorce? In the worst-case scenario when London fails to strike a comprehensive free-trade deal with Europe, what negative consequences may await Europe?

 

Certainly, the UK will suffer more - the immediate reaction of the markets to the Brexit vote already suggests it. Many things depend on whether the UK will really leave EU and if it will, on what terms. Withdrawal from the single market will bear nearly disastrous consequences for Britain. Obviously, it will not fade into inexistence and become a kind of Third World country, but it will definitely have hard times with sustaining its exports for which Europe has long been the crucial market. To avoid this, London will probably have to renegotiate deals with all the 27 member states separately which will take time, not to mention the agreements with non-EU countries. Additionally, London may weaken its position as the financial hub and pass the ball to Frankfurt, Paris or other EU capitals, which puts EU in the winning position.

When it comes to the issue of contributions widely emphasized in the media, the UK has actually been reducing its share throughout the recent years. It should also be noted that substantial amounts from the EU budget have been invested back into the UK; in Wales, the sums involved constitute several billion pounds from structural funds. The UK was not a substantial receiver of payments aimed at implementing common agricultural policy, but they got much in the form of structural funds (especially aimed at the projects in rural areas). While Britain is set to carry the burden of the “divorce”, negative consequences for Europe are largely restricted to the political, not economic, sphere.

 

 

What is the probability that the Brexit would finally trigger a long-awaited comprehensive EU reform?

 

Today is one of the rare moments when most European-level political parties in the European Parliament (liberals, social democrats, national democrats) all agree on the need to reform the workings of the EU. But the question remains: in what direction must the reform be designed? is it going to be more or less of Europe, are intergovernmental or more federation-like policies needed? Humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean, terror threat, the refugee problem push for more Europe and collective measures - I believe that huge stakes in common security issues will push collaboration, as it has already happened in the past, and used to be a triggering centripetal factor in Europe. Though I may sound optimistic, I believe that Brexit may actually push Europe forward on these matters since the UK used to be an outsider in this sense.

 

 

The issue of Scotland has been looming large after the vote results appeared. Is there any legal option to keep it in the EU while the UK leaves? Or, in case Edinburgh really becomes independent, how easy would it be for the Scots to be accepted as a full-fledged member?

 

I think Scotland will most probably opt to initiate a referendum process once UK activates the exit negotiations (especially in case the Article 50 is implemented). If Scotland gains independence, its road to the EU is likely to be quite smooth: European regulations are already being implemented in the whole UK, and Scotland is much more socioeconomically developed than, say, most East European members or candidates like Turkey. There are no grounds to forecast a slow bureaucratic accession process akin to the 5th enlargement, or with the current candidates. Hence, the accession process will be probably complete in a couple of years after the pledge for membership is made.

 

 

Do you see any ways Brexit could influence the EU policies towards the post-Soviet countries?

 

This is probably a good time for Russia whose leadership would be happy to see a divided and politically weak Europe (though they are interested in strong European markets). Brexit may give a short-term window of opportunity for Russia and like-minded countries who pedal on non-interference and sovereignty-emphasizing rhetoric. In the long-term positive scenario of a more consolidated Europe, however, structural pressures on authoritarian countries may remain as robust as ever.

 

Today, there are few countries in the region pursuing the policy of rapprochement with the EU. These are Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova - and even they are unlikely to be considered for membership in the next couple of decades. What about the UK, it has never been especially enthusiastic on the Eastern Partnership program, so Brexit will not be a game-changer here.

 

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