Today European leaders must look at what their integration has produced to adjust it to new realities and challenges.

British Prime Minister David Cameron (C) looks at Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov (R) as they pose with other European leaders at the EU Summit in Brussels, Belgium, June 28, 2016. Photo: Reuters

The EU heads of state who met for the European Council summit June 28-29 faced an ambitious agenda. In addition to discussing the ramifications of the British referendum, the leaders also confronted questions of migration, jobs, growth and investment, the future of EU-NATO cooperation and the EU Global Strategy on Foreign and Security Policy, including relations with Russia. While the summit ended with more questions than answers, the substantive discussion indicated that Brexit may not, after all, herald the beginning of the end of the European experiment.

The Brexit effect

Given the outcome of the British referendum, it came as no surprise that the UK’s decision to leave the EU and its political implications dominated the meeting. After discussions with British Prime Minister David Cameron on June 28, the 27 remaining EU leaders met informally on June 29 to discuss the political and practical implications of Brexit and the future of the European Union. "Certainly one issue is clear from our debate. Leaders are absolutely determined to remain united and work closely together as 27," said European Council president Donald Tusk at a press conference after the meeting.

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Before the vote, EU leaders recognized that the departure of the UK would be a loss for both sides. Afterwards, various apocalyptic scenarios about the future of European integration began to appear – most notably the “domino effect,” in which Eurosceptic parties in France, the Netherlands, Austria, Denmark and Poland, among others, begin to push the issue of their own independence up the political agenda. Many politicians, political analysts and public figures, including George Soros, predicted that “now the catastrophic scenario that many feared has materialized, making the disintegration of the EU practically irreversible."

However, after the first shock passed, it became clear that Brexit would not necessarily have such a negative impact. While it is true that Europe’s far-right parties have rejoiced at the UK’s vote to leave the EU, drawing courage from Brexit as a victory for their own anti-immigration and anti-EU stances and vowing to push for similar referendums in countries such as France, the Netherlands and Denmark, the leaders of some Eurosceptic countries have taken more cautious and more pro-EU positions regarding EU reform and European integration at large. The Polish government encouraged further reform in the EU to increase democratic legitimacy, and Polish President Andrzej Duda called for safeguards from further exits to be put in place. In Bulgaria, key politicians asked for further integration, while Romania declared its willingness to become “a proactive actor in the evolution of the EU, which will certainly continue after the EU referendum in UK.”

Put simply, the UK vote to leave might have become a catalyst for EU leaders to reach an agreement on policies that have divided member states so far. The most telling evidence for this trend was the weekend’s general election in Spain, in which Spanish citizens swung their support from the new populist party Podemos back to the traditional parties, Conservatives and Socialists.

The Brexit vote may have more effect on the unity of the UK rather than that of the EU. It’s no exaggeration to say that Britain’s territorial integrity to a large extent depends on Brussels. Scotland, which voted overwhelmingly for Remain, can be expected to make another attempt to gain its independence through a new referendum. In Northern Ireland, where voters also backed the Remain camp, some politicians have already called for unification with the Republic of Ireland. EU officials could justly have encouraged these processes, but the majority of European leaders recognize that the breakup of the UK could trigger a chain reaction in those European countries that have secessionist movements, such as Belgium and Spain. EU Council President Tusk declined to meet with Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon on the margins of the European Council summit, saying “it is not the right and appropriate moment.” Tusk also expressed the desire to have the UK as a close partner in the future. All parties recognize that the divorce between EU and UK will take time, opening up the possibility to negotiate a new format of their relationship.

The European Council decided that the leadership of the remaining EU states will meet again on Sept. 16 in Bratislava, Slovakia to continue talks. Leaders reconfirmed that no actions can take place until the UK formally begins the process of withdrawing by invoking Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. “There will be no negotiations of any kind until the UK formally notifies its intention to withdraw,” Tusk said. In the joint statement following the meeting, the 27 leaders announced: “until the UK leaves the Union, the EU law continues to apply to and within the UK, both when it comes to rights and obligations.”

European Global Strategy

The effects of Brexit were not the only topic discussed at the summit. The European Global Strategy (EGS), which “sets out the EU's core interests and principles for engaging in the world,” was presented at the meeting. There are two points of the strategy worth highlighting. The first of these is the recognition that “the EU should also be prepared to undertake autonomously the full spectrum of civilian and military missions in its strategic neighborhood in keeping with international law when and where this is necessary to protect vital European interests. This implies the ability to project both civilian and military capabilities, and the capacity to link timely crisis management and humanitarian assistance to longer-term development efforts as part of the EU’s comprehensive approach.” Secondly, the EGS recognizes that the EU should seek to develop targeted partnerships with its neighbors including Russia. “A well-governed Russia, respectful of its commitments to its own population as well as international law, could prove a valuable partner. The EU should therefore be ready to define an upgraded relationship with Russia,” the EGS reads.

To fulfill the first goal, two conditions must be met. First, pooled capabilities should be made available for European intervention even when participating member states do not join a particular mission. Second, planning should be carried out at the EU level through a regularly renewed Capability Development Plan, with the European Defense Agency acting as facilitator in coordination with NATO defense planning. This means essentially that the EU should develop the Common Security and Defense Policy further in order to safeguard its strategic goals, which at times may be different from those of NATO. The first goal may seem at odds with the second, but given the current EU-Russia crisis over Ukraine, the recognition of Russia’s importance in the strategic neighborhood of European Union sounds encouraging.

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Looking ahead

There is no doubt that this summit came at a very difficult period in the history of European integration. The growing mistrust of political leaders and institutions and the crisis of representative democracy that has appeared in recent years presents a challenge to the very existence of the European Union. At the same time, it is impossible to ignore the fact that many of the problems in Europe’s past arose from mistrust. World War II brought to light the suicidal absurdity of nationalist rivalry, thereby paving the way first for the European Economic Community, which in turn led to the European Union. Accordingly, Europe’s recognition of its weakness and its desire to replace confrontation with cooperation pushed the region towards further integration.

For many decades, the European project was the most successful model for regional integration, and for many decades the EU leaders capitalized on the Union’s past achievements. They now must take the advice of former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who warned: “However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results.” Today European leaders must look at what their integration has produced to adjust it to new realities and challenges.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.