The surprising news of Brexit has rightfully captivated the attention of the global media. Yet, the overall significance of this event remains obscured due to sensationalist reporting. The issue at heart is not, as some would suggest, a debate between nationalism and internationalism or globalization and protectionism. It is a question regarding the fate of the European Union.
At the signing of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, the founding goals of the EU were explicit: “an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe” and the development of a distinct European identity. Key to forging this new European identity was the creation of a single currency which would not only provide a more efficient means of conducting business across Europe but also provide a symbol of European solidarity. Additionally, the creation and management of a single European currency would require the construction of a supranational institution that represented the collective interests of Europe, thus removing the sovereignty of nations to unilaterally manage their own currencies. This move further demonstrates the aim of the EU to create a unified Europe.
Unquestionably, the first two decades of the EU’s life should be considered a resounding success due to its ability to create peace and prosperity on the European Continent. Since its founding, the EU has grown from eleven members to 28 member states today. Furthermore, the EU has an estimated population of over 513 million with a GDP of over $16.27 trillion.
If the EU were to be viewed as a sovereign nation, it would contain the world’s third largest population and second largest economy. In 2012, it won the Nobel Peace Prize for its support of reconciliation and democracy in Europe. But in the midst of the EU’s triumphs, an unanswered question has been gnawing at its soul: the question of national sovereignty.
The difficulty the EU faces is that while the Maastricht Treaty makes its goals explicit, the mechanisms for achieving these goals are ambiguous. Although the EU does possess democratic bodies such as the European Parliament, the European Council, and the Council of the EU, these bodies are largely ineffective due to the diverse interests held by EU members and their lack of common history. Indeed, the only shared history of many of the EU’s members is that of violent warfare. This adds to the difficulty of creating a unified Europe.
The EU’s lack of unity is compounded by the obtuse and bureaucratic procedures required to craft and pass legislation. As a result, most rule making negotiations are conducted behind the scenes by member governments and other EU bureaucratic bodies. Thus, the irony of the EU is that while it claims to represent democratic ideals, its primary mechanisms for encouraging continual political integration are the product of unelected bureaucrats. Yet again, ambiguity clouds the legitimacy of these procedures. Unlike the United States, the European Union does not have the federal authority as an independent body to pass laws and regulations without the explicit consent of its members. The consequent growth of the EU’s size and scope through bureaucratic means has led to the criticism that the EU is undermining the democratic right to self-determination of its members. It is due to these reproaches that the campaign to leave the EU emerged within the United Kingdom.
Throughout its history, the UK has been wary of any one power dominating the European Continent. This fact is reflected by the UK’s record of intervention in the Napoleonic Wars and both World Wars. Upon joining the predecessor to the EU, the European Economic Community, in 1973, the UK noted that while it was interested in becoming part of the single European market it was not interested in a political union with the rest of Europe. Thus, when the EU announced that it would launch the Euro in 2002, the UK expressed its desire to retain the use of the British Pound.
And while the EU was growing in both the size and reach of its economic prowess as well as regulatory capacity, some British leaders began to bristle at the idea of submitting to the whims of bureaucrats in Brussels. In order to help relieve the concerns of the erosion of British sovereignty and curb the rise of the anti-EU UK Independence Party, Prime Minister David Cameron announced in 2013 that if the Tories were the winners of the 2015 election, a nationwide referendum regarding the UK’s future in the EU would be held. Fulfilling his earlier promise, Cameron announced in February 2016 that the referendum would be held on June 23, 2016.
However, several key events happened within the European Union during the interim between Cameron’s promise in 2013 and the announcement of the Brexit vote in early 2016. The first major event was the announcement of Greece’s default on its IMF loans on June 30, 2015. This brought into question the long-term financial stability of the Eurozone, and, in turn, the entire EU. Furthermore, the horrific Charlie Hebdo, Paris, and Brussels terrorist attacks committed by the Islamic State undermined confidence in the EU to provide security for Europeans. However, arguably the most significant event impacting the Brexit result was the 2015 refugee crisis.
In the summer of 2015, it rapidly became evident that millions were fleeing the carnage left in the wake of the Syrian Civil War and the rise of ISIS in the Middle East. Seeking safety and security, hundreds of thousands of refugees began attempting entry into Europe. In response to the flood of refugees, German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced an open arms refugee policy for Germany. Yet, due to the rules governing the European Union, upon obtaining a visa within Germany, a refugee would be able to freely move across the EU.
Germany’s unilateral response to the refugee crisis alarmed many leaders across the EU. Within the UK, some political leaders viewed the ability of Germany to supersede the wishes of the rest of EU members as a threat to the UK national sovereignty. This event served as a major plank for the Leave Campaign during the Brexit referendum as it gave an air of legitimacy to the claims that the EU was undermining the UK’s sovereignty.
After the results of the Brexit referendum, several trends are becoming clear. First, the uncertainty surrounding the UK’s economic and political future. Due to its complexity, this question can only be answered with time. Second, more pertinent to the future of the EU, regards the question of sovereignty. Due to the lack of a federal system, the EU is merely a treaty of convenience. Nations are consequently allowed to enter and exit the EU at will.
This reality could have a tremendous impact upon the longevity of the EU. Across the Continent, Euroskepticism is rising. As the EU continues to face questions regarding Greece’s financial stability, ISIS terrorist cells, the refugee crisis, and an emerging Italian banking crisis, the need for a strong EU has never been greater. Nevertheless, Brexit has forced the EU’s leaders to address the concerns of national sovereignty, thus weakening EU’s ability to adequately address these problems as one body.
The task at hand for the EU is simple: if it wishes to survive as an institution, it must find a way to navigate present and future crises while respecting the national sovereignty of its members. Time will reveal if the EU is up to the challenge.
Guest Writer: Nathan Carson is passionate about identifying geopolitical trends that will impact international stability and food security. He is a second-year Masters student studying Agricultural Economics at Purdue University with a specialization in Agricultural Finance. As an undergrad at the University of Florida, he served as a Scholar for the Challenge 2050 Project and presented research on the use of microloans to help address poverty, food insecurity, and water scarcity in India. Nathan also represented the United States as a delegate to the 2013 Youth Ag Summit in Calgary, Canada where he led a team of fifteen
delegates to construct, organize, and propose a global marketing plan to combat hunger worldwide.
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