This text also appeared in Al Jazeera Balkans in Croatian language.
“After this, nothing will ever be the same” is a phrase very much abused. But when speaking about Brexit it comes very much to mind as a description of the process that has just begun. And the process itself is so complex that it is now very hard to foresee what it will bring. All of a sudden, the future of the EU and the UK are in question.
When citizens of Scotland decided to remain in Great Britain in the fall of 2014, the decisive factor for their decision was the fact that the UK is a member of the EU, and that Scotland would have to negotiate its own membership if it wanted to join independently, facing Great Britain with veto powers. So the Scots voted rationally, making a decision which decreased uncertainty of their political position and their political future.
But today the citizens of the UK voted for increased uncertainty, putting ex post the Scottish decision under question. When it comes to the status of Northern Ireland, the British voters may have forgotten that the peace arrangements for that part of the UK had a basis in the fact that both the UK and the Republic of Ireland were members of the EU and the border between them was mainly administrative.
The EU was, from the start, mainly a peace project. But decades of peace made the citizens of the EU forget about its origins and take the state of permanent peace as a given. But a dissolution of the EU would bring about a dissolution of the peaceful order that was built through the process of European integration. Brits seems to have forgotten as well that the solution of their most important security problem – that of the civil war between the unionists and the separatists in Northern Ireland – was solved among others on the basis of European integration. And, besides Scotland and Northern Ireland, this might bring about a question of Welsh independence.
For a very long time, Brexit was not considered a real possibility by many in the EU, primarily because everybody believed that David Cameron promised to hold a referendum only to strengthen his negotiating position with the EU and secure a privileged position for his country in the EU. In that sense he is also a child of Margaret Thatcher, but unlike his predecessor he apparently did not have sufficient sense of how much he can actually risk. Also, he turned out to be a leader who could not secure a following of his citizens despite (or maybe precisely because of) many changes of political direction. Although he was the one who put the referendum on the table, once he got what he wanted from the EU he could not put the genie back into the bottle and reign in the newly awoken populism. There are those who believe that David Cameron, to whom the defeat in the referendum brought about the end of his political career in keeping with the British political tradition, will be remembered as a politician who brought about not only a deep crisis of the European Union, but maybe a dissolution of the United Kingdom as well. They might be right.
The new process that will now start between the European institutions and the British leadership is regulated, but unprecedented. There are a myriad of technicalities to be solved, define status and rights of British citizens permanently living in other EU member states, status of British enterprises in the EU market and vice versa, and many other things. Another thing British voters seems to have forgotten is propensity of its middle class to move to France or Spain in retirement as cost of living there is much lower than in the UK. Freedom of movement is another thing that Europeans take for granted, forgetting that it is not a gift from above but a consequence of European integration.
For now, it seems that the price of Brexit will be paid by the British citizens and its enterprises. The traditionally cautious financial industry is already panicking after the British decision to leave the EU. To be fair, financially and economically Britain is more dependent on its Atlanticism rather than on the EU as the US are perhaps a more important market for Britain than the EU. So far, the British policy was always to serve as some sort of a bridge between the US and the rest of the EU. Now this role is off, and if the Obama administration and the EU manage to finalize the TTIP negotiations before the end of the current US presidency, Britain will be marginalized in that process as well.
Some, of course, will rejoice. A comical car racing promoter, a Bernie Ecclestone, recently stated that the US should be ruled by Trump and Europe by Putin. Those who see the autocratic Asiatic leader as an alternative to European democratic institutions are overjoyed to see Britain leave the EU. This of course includes the entire Putin clientele in Europe, consisting mainly of leaders of radical anti-system parties such as Le Pen and her National Front in France, Geert Wilders and his Freedom Party in the Netherlands, or closer to home Heinz-Christian Strache and his Freedom Party in Austria.
If the EU weakens, Russia’s influence will grow, and Putin is already for a long time systematically attempting to shatter common European policies such as the energy security policy.
The common energy policy is not the only one which will become more vulnerable now, under new conditions. First to suffer will be the enlargement policy, which formed a basis for most of the European peace project. The most paradoxical situation will now arise in Serbia, where the EU is represented by Michael Davenport who will soon stop being a citizen of the EU.
Of course, under the present leadership constraints within the EU, which have been coming for years, enlargement policy in the Balkans will slip in the background of common policies of “dissolution” which the EU and its bureaucracy are facing for the first time ever.
No country in Western Balkans has particular links to the UK, so in that sense Brexit will not have the same effect on them as on, for instance, France or Spain. But damages caused by a halt to enlargement or at least deceleration of the process, and those caused by reduced attention of European institutions on events in European neighborhood, could easily become greater than those to be suffered in the short term by countries with greater exposure to the British market influences.
For the first time ever, the European integration as a policy and a process is in serious danger. This is not only about the simplistic argument, used in most primitive attempts to promote the EU membership, that no country ever left the EU. Britain’s departure casts doubt on the entire design of the European integration. Truth be told, the twin engine of European integration were always France and Germany. German public was particularly engaged in convincing the Brits they should stay, and in France perspectives of EU membership were questioned until now only by marginal nationalist radicals. But will they stay marginal after the next parliamentary elections is the question likely to trouble most of the EU this fall.
The Balkans could also be one of the first areas of deeper penetration of Putin’s Russia. If Serbia loses the European perspective the EU will offer it to Putin on a plate. And more dramatic processes in case of deeper Russian penetration into the Balkans could take place in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where Russia already treats the smaller entity as “corpus separatum” and sees it as its own sphere of economic and political interest. Brexit could become an introduction into the new geopolitical clash between Russia and the West if the EU choses the worst possible strategy of dealing with the crisis and freezes the enlargement completely. And the EU would enter this ring weaker than ever, without one end of the permanent political triangle of Germany, France and the United Kingdom.