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Despite the Brexit chaos, Europe did not collapse like dominoes

Three reasons E.U. ties seem that much stronger.

- April 12, 2019

The endless turmoil of Brexit and its parade of missed deadlines were once again in the news this week, as E.U. leaders granted the U.K. yet another extension, until Oct. 31. Here’s one unexpected and less obvious outcome of the long Brexit saga: The European Union has gotten stronger.

After the jolt of the U.K. vote in June 2016 to leave the European Union, pundits and scholars alike predicted that the Leave vote might be the first wave of potential exits — Frexit, Nexit, Italexit, Grexit — and a likely death knell for the E.U’.s fragile experiment in governance.

Many analysts saw the Leave voters’ pushback against the E.U.’s powerful political authority as a model likely to be copied by populist euroskeptic parties everywhere. Combined with the lingering euro zone crisis, the humanitarian challenges of the migrant influx, and the E.U.’s ineffective response to the erosion of liberal norms and rule of law in Poland and Hungary, Brexit seemed to be the bellwether for the re-nationalization of European politics, and the eventual implosion of the European project.

The British Parliament is voting on Brexit. This graph shows where they may end up.

But it hasn’t turned out this way. In the U.K., Brexit chaos exposed deep cleavages within and across political parties and the society they represent. Surprisingly, the E.U. has emerged as the coherent and unified negotiating partner. Michel Barnier, the European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator, has proved an effective advocate for the E.U. while the European Council, a heterogeneous group of the EU27 national leaders from all over the political spectrum led by Polish President Donald Tusk, has acted together throughout the process.

Moreover, recent polls across the other 27 E.U. members show steadily growing support for the E.U. Populist parties no longer talk about exiting but rather reforming the E.U. from within. They seek not to renationalize politics but reorganize in a Pan-European political movement.

Political elites in the core states of the European Union have built on the U.K.’s presumptive exit to deepen cooperation and move forward in a host of areas, most notably military and foreign policy — in which the U.K. had previously been a naysayer.

What might explain this surprising outcome in Europe’s fate? Here are three reasons.

1. Brexit has become a powerful example to other countries in Europe

The simplest explanation may be that Brexit has had what scholars call a demonstration effect on politicians and voters throughout the E.U. This explanation builds on the idea that people do not make decisions in isolation but instead often copy what others have done, based in part on social processes that shape how we see what is desirable.

The retreat of many global firms from the U.K. in the face of Brexit, a weakened pound sterling and British political disarray paint a vivid picture of what exiting the E.U. means. These realities also serve to delegitimate claims politicians make about reasons to leave the E.U.

The problem with Brexit is that there’s no obvious next step

People use social cues to decipher what is rational and what is not — and Brexit demonstrates that leaving the E.U. is much less like a simple exit from an international treaty, and much more like the complex and fraught unwinding from a complicated set of arrangements that reach deeply into citizens’ everyday lives.

2. The Brexit mess has helped the E.U. consolidate its authority

E.U. scholars have used the idea of “failing forward” to trace out how governance problems and crises in the E.U. have prompted solutions that deepen, not dissipate, European integration. Indeed, under certain conditions, politicians historically have been able to use crisis to move forward and consolidate power and authority at the center. Examples of state-building and comparative political development might provide some clues as to why the path of the E.U. might be more positive than predicted by the initial Brexit shock.

Scholars who study state-building look to the role of economic dynamics, security imperatives and shared social identity in potentially pushing forward the centralization of political authority, particularly in the face of crisis. As I have argued in my research, the E.U. is just one more emergent political entity that is subject to similar dynamics. In fact, the threats of the last decade, including the Brexit drama, have may have provided the external impetus and political space for motivated political elites to push forward the E.U., rather than destroying it.

3. The E.U. has its own social glue — and crisis only makes that glue stronger

The research on state-building also helps us think through the social conditions under which shocks and crises might produce more unity, rather than centrifugal splintering.

Nationalism was one of the key elements supporting the rise of the nation-state. While the E.U. is not and will never be a nation-state, we can ask whether it promotes a version of a shared imagined community of Europeans that might undergird politics in hard times.

In my book, “The Politics of Everyday Europe,” I argue that an unobtrusive but potentially powerful set of everyday symbols and practices under the E.U.’s governance has produced a common European identity that, although weak, has moved a generation of Europeans toward a shared social solidarity. From the euro, to a common passport, to the common E.U. security and defense strategy, many Europeans now take for granted a host of E.U.-generated symbols and practices normally associated with nationhood.

Did U.K. voters think of themselves as European? Not so much.

However, only a portion of the U.K. population has felt part of this shared European identity, as the symbols and practices of everyday European life penetrated British life unevenly — after all, Britain never joined the euro or the Schengen borderless free movement zone. In countries like Denmark and Ireland, social solidarity helped produce more effective responses to the global financial crisis. Perhaps the Brexit catastrophe is demonstrating a similar effect via the surprisingly united and cohesive E.U. response.

Whatever the reasons, the E.U.’s solidarity throughout the Brexit crisis is still somewhat unexpected. While many challenges remain for the E.U., the combined impact of Brexit seems to have been a boon rather than a unraveling of the European project.

Kathleen R. McNamara is professor of government and foreign affairs at Georgetown University and the author of “The Politics of Everyday Europe: Constructing Authority in the European Union.”