RD Interview: Vivien Pertusot, head of the Brussels office of France’s leading foreign policy think tank, French Institute of International Relations (IFRI), explores how the Brexit will force the EU member states to reconsider the future pace of integration as well as which nations will play a leadership role in a newly configured Union.

Demonstrators opposing the UK’s exit from the EU hold a protest in Parliament Square in London following the EU referendum results. Photo: AP

The Brexit vote has sent shockwaves through Brussels and the capitals of the EU member states. It is clear that the Union is going to change. Yet the discussion of what these changes should be is just beginning and there is not enough agreement even on the format of this discussion, according to Vivien Pertusot, head of the Brussels office of France’s leading foreign policy think tank, French Institute of International Relations (IFRI). France, in fact, may play an important role in this discussion, but nothing is going to clear up before elections in France and Germany in 2017.

Russia Direct: After the Brexit referendum, there has been and will be a lot of discussion about what shape the EU is going to take in the future. What are the main schools of thought today in Brussels on this subject and what do you think is actually going to happen to the EU?

Vivien Pertusot: It is hard to say at this stage. After the Brexit vote, for the first week and a half there was a sense of disbelief and shock. No one really believed that the UK voted out and maybe some even thought it could be reversed and Brexit would not be implemented. There was a state of shock over the fact that a very important country may actually leave the European Union — this could be perceived as a beginning of some form of disintegration. 

It took several days for Brussels and the EU member states to take stock of the referendum and to start thinking about what comes next. You see that with a variety of signs. First, there will be a kind of reflection meeting at the end of September in Slovakia, during the Slovak presidency, where the heads of states and governments will meet informally to discuss the future of the European Union and the kinds of steps that should be taken.

Then you’ve had a variety of meetings that took place across Europe in different formats. Some of them took place in the format of the founding countries [Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands], some in the format of the Visegrad countries [Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic]. 

And all had the same focus point — what’s next for the EU after Brexit? And all of them came to the same conclusion that there should be a new dynamic for the European Union, and we should do more. There is a call for more action at the European level.

But beyond that fairly broad ambition, you have clear disagreement and clear divergences among member states, not just between the Visegrad countries and the founding countries, but also within those groups. And the question is: Do we want further integration?

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Vivien Pertusot, head of the Brussels office of France’s leading foreign policy think tank, French Institute of International Relations (IFRI). Photo: IFRI

RD: So, will there be more integration or less integration?

V.P.: This question for the time being has no answer. Depending on whom you ask the question, the reply would be different. The debate is phrased in a way that, to me, is not necessarily healthy. The question that’s being asked is “Should we do this or that?” rather than the question “What do we need to do?” The statements we hear are that within the Eurozone we need to do more to consolidate the fiscal policies of different member states — something that countries like France or Germany would favor, but something that has no traction in other founding countries like the Netherlands or Belgium, for instance. If you take other issues such as social policy, you can also find disagreement within the founding group.

For the time being, there won’t be any rush for easy actions. You’ve had a few calls for “we should do this in this particular area, we should do that in that particular area.” There was a paper coauthored by the German and French ministers of foreign affairs a little bit after the Brexit vote that called for the completion of the banking union, put forward some initiatives in security and defense and called for social policies. But even that paper did not reflect the views of the entire French and German administrations, but rather, the views of the two ministers.

What we see is the starting point of a Europe-wide debate on what the EU should look like in the future. If anyone is expecting a rapid reaction to the Brexit vote, those people will be disappointed, because to a large extent the reactions that can be expected to the Brexit vote are the reactions that require a very wide ranging and complicated debate.

RD: I was in Berlin at the time of the Brexit vote, and got the feeling that it puts Germany in a position of leadership that is greater than any wishes of the country. How is the new role of Germany seen from Brussels? 

V.P.: There is this reading as well that Germany will be expected to lead even more. At the same time, there is realization that the German leadership is not uncontested. Not so much that there are other countries that could do what Germany does, but the German leadership is not necessarily uniting. It has caused a lot of divisions in the past — like on the Greek issue, for instance. So, it is not necessarily seen as a way forward. Germany is not perceived as the only country that can lead the debate on the future of the EU.

I’d say both in Brussels and elsewhere many are quite concerned that the debate on post-Brexit is being conducted in different formats with the founding countries meeting more and more and being willing to put forward proposals in that format before really discussing these proposals with the 21 other member states.

There is more concern about how to have a conversation on the future of the EU among the 27 member countries, or at least those that are interested to talk about the future of the EU rather than to be fearful or concerned or to expect Germany to have an even stronger role than it has today.

RD: Do you think this crisis is opening new opportunities for dialogue with Russia or it will make Europe more inward looking and thus less willing to conduct external dialogue?

V.P.: I think those are very distinct questions. On Russia, as long as the relationship is very strained, as it is today, the relations will remain quite limited. I don’t think that the Russian question will play any role in the discussion on the future of the EU. As long as there is tension between Russia and the EU and its member states, it will be hard to expect a renewal in the EU-Russia relationship.

The only risk is that the EU becomes more internally focused. Yet here too, some of the issues that are to be debated as part of the EU future have a Russian angle. One is the security of the EU borders; the other is the EU’s role in the world. There are elements in this debate that could have some ramifications on foreign policy. It shouldn’t be completely overlooked. But if you look at the Eurozone crisis, it is very clear that it has pushed the EU to be very inward looking.

Here, it is also an internal crisis, but some people see the solution in strengthening EU’s foreign and defense policy in order to better legitimize the EU in the eyes of the citizens or to push a policy field that has been fairly secondary in the past years and where potential progress can be made.

Vivien Pertusot is Head of the Brussels office of the French Institute for International Relations (IFRI). Pertusot also coordinates IFRI’s research program, “REcalibrate Security in Europe and in the Transatlantic area (RESET),” which focuses on defense policy and cooperation in Europe. He is also the coordinator of the project “Building Bridges between National Perspectives on the European Union.” He has previously worked at NATO and Carnegie Europe.

This is an excerpt from the interview originally featured in Russia Direct's July report “Is Europe unraveling: How the Brexit vote will change the EU and its relations with Russia and the world?” This report brings together the analysis from Timofey Bordachev of the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, American sociologist and political scientist Jack A. GoldstoneAurel Braun of the University of Toronto, and Dimitri Elkin, Russian-American writer and businessman. It also includes an interview with Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center. To get access to the report and read the full version of the interview, subscribe to Russia Direct and download it