Debates: In the aftermath of Britain’s surprising vote to exit from the European Union, Russia Direct interviewed top experts, diplomats and officials in Europe and Russia to get their views on the possible implications.


Vote Leave campaigner Boris Johnson arrives for a press conference at Vote Leave headquarters in London Friday June 24, 2016. Photo: Mary Turner/Pool via AP

On June 23, Great Britain surprised – or rather shocked – Europe and the world by voting to leave the European Union in the Brexit referendum. Long before the actual vote, British Prime Minister David Cameron and Foreign Minister Philip Hammond were urging Britons to vote for the UK’s continued membership in the EU, while simultaneously arguing that only Russia would benefit from Brexit.

However, the British people seem to think otherwise. Even the prospect of the resignation of Cameron – who threatened to quit in the event of Brexit – didn’t prevent Britons from voting for the UK leaving the European Union. The British Prime Minister announced his resignation shortly after the results of the referendum. With 72 percent voter turnout, the Leave campaign secured 52 percent of the votes, while the Remain campaign received 48 percent of the votes. 

These events are indeed extraordinary for Europe and, moreover, they put at the risk the whole European integration process and the very concept of the EU. What are the implications of Brexit for the UK, Europe and Russia? Russia Direct interviewed a number of top experts and diplomats to find out.

Mikhail Troitskiy, political and international affairs analyst in Moscow

The UK is in for a tumultuous and uncertain time, at least until the end of negotiations with Brussels on the UK's actual departure from the EU. I would not rule out the possibility that the British government will be forced to hold a new referendum on EU membership amid the mounting economic challenges, social tensions, and secessionist pressures.

The UK corporate sector will lobby hard for repackaging the outcome of the referendum in a way to avoid pulling out of the EU until the extent of the damage becomes clear and trickles down to the broad social strata. Social tensions may arise from the large numbers of immigrant workers from the EU being forced to leave the UK.

The rest of the EU might be inoculated against further exit referenda. Even in the Netherlands, where the anti-EU sentiment is almost equally strong as Britain's, it will not be difficult to make the case for postponing any such referendum until the consequences of Brexit for the UK are fully clear.

British politician and leader of the UKIP party Nigel Farage holds up a placard as he launches his party's campaign for Britain to leave the EU. Photo: AP

In the meantime, Britain will likely try to reiterate and reinforce its commitment to common defense with much of the rest of Europe through NATO. The coming NATO summit can be expected to stress Euro-Atlantic solidarity and unity in maintaining common security to compensate for the weakening of Europe's economic clout. Overall, a mobilizing effect of Brexit for both the EU and NATO looks possible and even likely.

In case Brexit triggers a full-fledged recession in the UK and Europe, Russia might have to face a new source of downward pressure on the price of oil. Should a risk avoidance mood set in among major international investors, Russia will be sure to experience increased capital flight and pressure on the ruble. That said, Moscow can hope for weakened solidarity among the EU nations in their policymaking vis-à-vis Russia. However, there is no immediate prospect of the economic sanctions on Russia being eased or lifted, as long as Britain will remain in the EU for at least another year.

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In addition, Russian businesses and private individuals who have invested in the British economy and/or the pound sterling will suffer losses. Real estate owned by Russians in the UK, and especially in London, is likely to lose a certain part of its value depending on the extent of the overall negative effect of Brexit on the British economy.

Overall, there will be no winners from the UK leaving the EU – an act that imperils economic ties between the globalized world's largest economic bloc and its second largest national economy. Brexit will generate ripple effects across the world economy. As usual, developing and mid-income economies will be the least shielded from Brexit's adverse effects.

Gernot Erler, special representative of the Federal Government of Germany for OSCE Chairmanship

This is a black day for Europe, for the grand idea [of the EU] and for the many outsiders of the European Union who were banking on this idea and who remain faithful to this idea. There are many different things that we still need to resolve in the EU. There is the aftermath of the financial crisis 2008-2010, there is Greece, and then there is the issue of refugees and issues pertaining to the European solidarity, the conflict with Russia and the Ukraine crisis.

A strong EU is in demand more than ever. But now a weakened EU has to try and tackle all of these tasks. But in this difficult situation we should not give any room to doubt that the EU will remain the political framework for the future of Europe. European integration over the last 70 years has decidedly contributed to peace and stability in Europe. The EU will remain the most important orientation and we’ll work on that in the future.

[This is the extract from Erler's speech during the OSCE Security Days Conference]

Andrei Kelin, director of the Department of European Cooperation of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia

I am not ready to analyze the consequences for the European Union, although I understand that it is a blow first of all to the image of the EU and the policy that it conducted. It turns out that the European Union is not achieving the goals that it proclaims.

As far as Russia is concerned and our participation in the division of labor and integration processes, I can say that a strong Europe is a better partner for us than a Europe weakened as a result of this. It means for us that Europe will be more consumed by internal issues, while we are interested in a more active interaction with Europe.

[Kelin talked to Russia Direct on the sidelines of the OSCE Security Days Conference]

Anna Dolidze, Deputy Minister of Defense of Georgia

I think it is a very sad day for Europe, because the European project from the very beginning of the European movement was not just for the people in Europe, but also for people outside of Europe, a symbol of peace, friendly relations, overcoming war through economic cooperation. And now this is questioned through the results of the Brexit referendum. It is especially sad that the results are so close, which means that we will always be thinking that this could probably be averted.

One fear from our side, because Georgia is an Eastern Partnership member, is that the EU will be increasingly inward-looking as it is looking for a new identity, and it is quite dangerous for the countries in the neighborhood. Here, I would suggest looking for inspiration in the countries of the Eastern Partnership, where we still believe in the project of European integration despite the fact that there are so many questions about it.

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We can hardly predict all the ripple effects of this decision. We will find out every day what the repercussions will be. We know from various analyses that discussions have started in Scotland (about a second referendum on secession). The ripple effects of this referendum will be felt for a long time, because this project has been put forward for more than 50 years through very hard work, and this is a really big question mark regarding the future of this project.

[Dolidze talked to Russia Direct on the sidelines of the OSCE Security Days Conference]

Robert Cooper, member of the European Council on Foreign Affairs, formerly associate of EU external policy chiefs Javier Solana and Catherine Ashton

People are only beginning to understand the ramifications. The Prime Minister in a rather strange way has resigned but not yet. The head of the Scottish National Party has said she thinks it is time for a second referendum (on secession) and she is talking to London Mayor Sadiq Khan on whether London can leave as well. To me, this is an indication of a general confusion. It’s not a surprise, because people on the Leave side have never had any sort of a program. They just wanted out and they never explained what they meant.

The first concern for me, of course, is the consequences for the UK. And all I can say is that the future is very clouded and actually the present is very clouded. The same will be true for the EU, except to a lesser extent. This prearranged crisis in the UK is now going to take some time to work out. Scotland and Northern Ireland are two different questions. Was that the plan of those who wanted to leave (the EU), that they were going to break up the United Kingdom? I don’t know. But this is what they have achieved.

[Cooper talked to Russia Direct on the sidelines of the OSCE Security Days Conference]

Lamberto Zannier, secretary general of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)

My feeling is that the reaction of people to a fast-moving environment surrounding them is somehow not well understood or underestimated. The issue of Brexit will of course be a big issue in and of itself and what Brexit means for the European cooperation and the role of the EU and all that. These are very large, but separate issues.

But all of us, in all OSCE countries, need to learn how better to communicate with the people, how to involve civil society in our work. Some of the challenges that we have are new in nature. We need to bring our institutions closer to the people.

British Prime Minister David Cameron, center, as he stands with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, right, and European Council President Donald Tusk at the Eastern Partnership summit in Riga, June 22, 2016. Photo: AP

What we are doing now (for example, the Security Days), is exactly that – bringing in civil society to our debates. We should do it more and better in the future. Debates like the one on migration are very difficult. People have very strong feelings about what is going on. And we need to have unifying narratives and narratives that are constructive. Otherwise we will play into the hands of populism, nationalism and we will go the wrong way and create more problems for our region.

[Zannier talked to Russia Direct on the sidelines of the OSCE Security Days Conference]

Stefan Füle, special envoy for the OSCE and the Western Balkans at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic, In 2010-2014 served as member of the European Commission responsible for Enlargement and Neighborhood Policy

There is no doubt about the need to move forward with the European Project. It has been obvious from [the EU’s] reaction to the economic, financial and particularly the migration crisis. I have always hoped that the United Kingdom, with its own specific pragmatic and values-based approach, would be an extremely valuable asset in this process. I have always hoped that the UK would be the driving force in moving this project forward.

I have always hoped that the European Union is not the straight jacket of the member states, but a flexible multi-orbital organization, which would allow the core group around the union to grow deeper and faster without compromising on the values and main principles the EU had been founded on. So, it’s extremely unfortunate that the UK voters have decided not to be part of that. I do not blame voters. I blame politicians. I find it a kind of hypocrisy of the politicians to describe the European Union as a project of elites.

It will have consequences for the UK, for all of us in the European Union. But I think that in the medium term and long-term, I am confident we could build on what London had already achieved when we were talking about the four specific conditions.

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As a result of that, we have already accepted that there might be a different way of integration. In a way, we have already accepted that the Euro might not be the only currency in the European Union. So, we made the first steps. Even with the UK leaving, let’s continue and make more steps and let us address, as we did in the past, not only the concern of one of us, but let’s address the concerns of all the member states.

The Brexit would not be my option, would not be my choice. But once it happened, rather than crying over what has happened, I believe it is the duty of not only politicians, but of the citizens who care indeed to turn it into an opportunity and the catalyst for moving the European Union forward.

[Füle talked to Russia Direct on the sidelines of the OSCE Security Days Conference]

Igor Yurgens, Chairman of the Management Board of the Institute of Contemporary Development (INSOR), member of the Academic Council of Russia’s Security Council

It is a major uncertainty for Europe. I hope that they had accounted for various options, including this one, in their tactical work. Strategically it is impossible to account for everything. On the one hand, the trends toward disintegration will strengthen. Marine Le Pen and similar (Eurosceptic) parties that exist everywhere in Europe will launch their campaigns. I have looked at an American website that supports Donald Trump – it [Brexit] is a holiday for them! The reactionary forces, as I see them, are all exuberant. And this cannot but have consequences for the EU countries.

For Russia there are already short-term tactical consequences. Already today both our currency and the prices of oil and metals are falling – that’s the reaction of the stock exchange to any unclear development. In the mid-term perspective, our conservatives are going to be using it, since it a little bit weakens the European Union and maybe even NATO.

But in the long-term, I hope we will correct our relations with both the EU and NATO, we will heal our wounds and set out upon creating a common European project. That is a positive scenario. The negative scenario is that Russia has dug its heels in for a long time and Eurasia and the Chinese vector will be the leading slogans for a long time. In this case, I foresee a very long-term, and China is not a replacement for Russia.

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The two years that the UK has to leave, according to the treaty, will see a lot of things happening. Of course they will not return – you cannot have a referendum every two years. But the deep free trade zone, profound common space can turn into some form of a special relationship between Great Britain and the EU and it will be perhaps more understandable for people who have now voted for Brexit.

[Yurgens talked to Russia Direct on the sidelines of the OSCE Security Days Conference]

Richard Sakwa, Professor of Russian and European Politics at the University of Kent 

The Brexit vote will provoke a constitutional crisis in the UK: referendums have no place in the British constitution, and thus are purely advisory. The majority of MPs wish to remain in the EU, as do the majority in the House of Lords. In Britain, parliament under the Queen is sovereign, so it is not inconceivable that if the exit negotiations become intractable, parliament may argue that in the national interest it would be better to stay in [the EU].

One of the peculiar features of the referendum debate was the question of whether Russia stood to benefit from Brexit. Moscow officially remained studiously neutral in the course of the campaign, but this did not prevent the Remainers to claim that the only one to benefit from Britain’s departure would be Russian president Vladimir Putin. This reflected the intellectual bankruptcy of much of the Remain campaign.

The EU has failed in the biggest challenge of our era, to create an inclusive peace order from Lisbon to Vladivostok. Instead, it has become an instrument of discord, and is perceived to be little more than a subordinate element in the U.S.-dominated Atlantic system. This system has historically delivered major public goods, but the question now becomes whether it can continue to do so.

The British political and constitutional crisis has now become a crisis for European unity in its entirety. It is also a moment of opportunity to re-forge the UK’s relations with Europe and the world, and for the EU itself to face up to some of its own failings and to shape a positive vision of peace and development for the whole continent.

[This is the extract from his column for the Valdai Discussion Club]