Europe’s failure to hammer out differences could usher in enormous uncertainties, Joseph Mariathasan warns

Donald Trump has declared that Britain would be better off outside Europe. His rationale is not the result of any deep analysis but rather an outcome of his own domestic political posturing – if building a wall on the border with Mexico is his answer to illegal immigration from Mexico, then perhaps leaving the EU may seem a simple solution to him for problems arising from immigration for Britain. The fact the headline news of an influx of Syrian refugees into Europe is a quite separate issue from the legal immigration of EU nationals into Britain does not seem to have entered his thinking.

Unfortunately, the debate on Brexit within the UK is no more profound. There is much rhetoric and claims about benefits and future costs by both pro and anti-Brexit supporters. But if the evidence that has accumulated so far is anything to go by, voters will be as confused at the end of the process as they are now.

Ultimately, the gulf between the UK and the rest of the EU lies in differing visions of what the EU represents. For the UK, the EU should be a trading body and not a political entity with a commitment to ever-closer union and a common currency. But for Continental Europe, led by France and Germany, it represents a political union designed to eliminate the causes of wars that have dogged Europe for centuries.

The EU is a direct development of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) established in 1951, just a few years after World War II. The ECSC’s prime purpose was to prevent another European war, and that political objective was achieved to the great satisfaction of everyone. But moving on from a trade organisation to an objective that seeks to establish a united states of Europe does not appear to have majority support within the UK, nor arguably in many other European countries.

UK prime minister David Cameron seems to have achieved a fudge of sorts from the EU’s historic commitment to create an “ever-closer union” of the peoples of Europe. But demands for maintaining the sovereignty of the UK’s Parliament over EU legislation are completely at odds with the direction of change within the EU, whereby every crisis has been used to strengthen the role of the EU as a political entity. 

What may separate the UK is this very different vision of what the EU should represent. Continental Europeans want real integration – it means the euro, the Schengen passport with free mobility and even armies that are integrating, like those of the Netherlands and Germany.

For the European periphery countries and the new entrants, the EU represents something else. It represents hope. Hope that individuals can escape from the burdens imposed on them by a dysfunctional state such as Greece, beholden to special interests, no matter which party governs. In the case of Greece, as part of the EU, Greeks see Greece’s security as enhanced against what it perceives as aggressive and unstable neighbours surrounding it. For Greece and to a lesser extent some of the other peripheral countries, the EU’s institutions and rules represents an escape route from the craziness of a country that aspires to be a developed, Western European democracy but remains wedded to practices dependent on patronage and privilege.

The dilemma for the UK, as many Continental Europeans argue, is that Britain has always been an island, stuck between Europe and the US, culturally as well as physically. The economic arguments for the UK’s being either in or out of the EU are essentially indeterminate. There is no overwhelming case either way, and that is one reason why the decision is difficult. If the question were to join from scratch, the answer may be a strong negative. But that decision was made decades ago. Changing the status quo via Brexit may or may not be a good thing in the long run. But what can be guaranteed is that, by doing so, it will cause immense uncertainties for a considerable period of time.

Will the benefits of Brexit outweigh the revised status quo within the EU? No one knows the answer. For most people, the decision, much like the Scottish referendum in the UK, will be made on emotional grounds. With both US president Barack Obama and aspiring president Trump wading into the debate, more heat has been generated but perhaps no more light.

There is an apocryphal story that former US president Richard Nixon, on his ground-breaking visit to China, tried to make small talk with premier Zhou Enlai by asking him what he thought about the French Revolution. Zhou’s reply was reputed to have been: “It is too early to tell.” That answer may still be appropriate when it comes to discussing the impact of Brexit for decades to come.

Brexit will introduce huge uncertainties in terms of the UK’s economic future, the stability of the EU and Continental European peace in the absence of the UK, and of the UK’s future position in the world. Doing so without overwhelming evidence that the outcome would be beneficial does seem foolhardy. But the EU may also have to accept it must recognise not all countries are seeking dissolution of their national identities within a pan-European behemoth. It would be a tragedy for both the UK and the rest of the EU if a compromise cannot be found.

Joseph Mariathasan is a contributing editor at IPE