Brexit will have for sure a huge transformative power, in the United Kingdom as well as in Europe. The important event is not that the EU has lost one of its 28 members or that its GDP has shrunk by fifteen percent. The relevant issue is that neither side of the English Channel will return to what it was before. Britain is going to face an intense, deep and prolonged debate about its identity and place in the world. And Europe will need to move from the complacency of believing itself united in front of the wayward member of the group to facing its own existential battle.
After the UK began to detach itself from Europe, the rest of Europe just closed ranks against those who wanted to go and increased the cost of exist so that others would not fall into the same temptation. This prevented the EU from understanding that many of the British discomforts within Europe were also felt by other members of the Union, particularly that ever-present tension between national sovereignty and supranational interventions. The United Kingdom –and other members of the EU– did not perceive that the community decision processes had the necessary democratic legitimacy to supplant national decision-making instances. It was felt that the community bodies invaded national spaces in contravention of the principle of subsidiarity. Interestingly, the United Kingdom assumed the informal leadership of those voices that did not dare to speak and that now, absent the spokesman, will have to do so with increasing assertiveness.
No doubt, the progress of Europe towards integration during the past almost seven decades has been immense. However, the “great vision” of a federated Europe has not impregnated the life of common citizens in order to transform the mosaic of nation-states into a shared European identity. Almost everything is still seen and thought through the prism of national interests. That is the truth, despite the great effort of the European leaders to overcome parochialist attitudes. Regrettably, as it is in the nature of bureaucracies, these efforts have resulted in unifying the life of the conglomerate more and more through a dense network of norms, laws and institutions that seek to homogenize the lives of citizens and countries. This explains how Europe has evolved towards a more centralizing and domeneering space, less democratic and less flexible.
Continental Europe has shown an unfortunate inability to understand the Brexit as a historic opportunity to rethink the European project and open ways to solve the impasse in which the European Union is currently stuck. The EU must acknowledge that the problem is not exclusively the United Kingdom, but Europe itself. It is certainly not easy to come to terms with this insight, because the achievements of the European integration have been so many and so important, that it is easy to fall asleep on the laurels.
The new Europe will need to have a minimum common denominator that is less demanding and comprehensive than the current one. It must allow a variety of integration spheres, according to national preferences and interests. National democracies must regain control of how much Europe they want and at what speed. They will have a palette of options in which they will decide whether to advance towards common security and defence institutions, towards “light” schemes for the coordination of monetary-financial policies or to a full-fledged monetary union. The new community language should speak less about uniformity and more about alternatives, flexibility or free choice. In short, a Europe that democratically respects its great cultural, social and political diversity.
Instead of a monolithic club, the EU would become a “club of clubs”, where countries would voluntarily associate in different group constellations. We would have two, three or more common currencies, two or more spheres of commercial integration, two or more levels of integration of the political systems, the social welfare systems or the movement of people. The amalgam that would hold the club together would be common fundamental values such as democracy, the rule of law or the respect for human rights, especially individual freedoms. In such a Europe, the United Kingdom would probably have had a place. And Boris Johnson wouldn`t probably have become Prime Minister.