On April 2nd 2019, the Institute for Politics and Society and the European Liberal Forum hosted a debate on Opportunities for Europe after Brexit. As moderator, Sebastian Vagt highlighted the context of the issue at hand: with Brexit being further delayed another two weeks, the questions linger whether it will happen at all. Vagt set up the discussion about what the European Union can learn from Brexit and how can it move forward after it. Will the Union be facing catastrophe or new opportunities?
Dita Charanzová highlighted the new relationships that have come out of Brexit, citing principally the increased Franco-German cooperation we have seen in the last few years, both in the Brexit negotiations and in treaties like last year’s Aachen Treaty. According to Charanzová, we can see here the forging of a new base for the EU to work around, as a good relationship between France and Germany is crucial for Europe to remain stable. The discussion went on to describe the opportunities that the Czech Republic will have to seize in the context of a British exit. Most panelists agreed that the UK is a traditional partner for the Czech Republic, and so forging new partnerships will be important to compensate for complications with Britain as a possible non-member state. While Charanzová advocated for closer ties to countries such as the Baltic States and the Netherlands, Pavel Svoboda saw a more stable opportunity in cooperation with traditional Czech partners such as Poland and Germany.
What political opportunities will arise after the Brexit debacle? Vagt raised the question whether a second UK referendum was necessary, and whether countries in Europe should adopt this type of strategy. Svoboda argued that the referendum model can be a dangerous event considering its unreliability. If something like Brexit can happen in an old developed democracy like Britain, he stressed that the risk is far greater in a new democracy like the Czech Republic, amongst misinformation campaigns and influence from Russia and China. But there is also opportunity in states at the periphery of the EU, a point echoed by Michael Emerson. Indeed, different levels of integration can be pursued with states interested in joining the EU like Ukraine, Georgia, and Turkey, as well as with the UK post-Brexit. With policies such as visa-free travel, the European project can continue to extend to a wider Europe in addition to its traditional core. Svoboda, Emerson and Macháček also discussed the idea that further integration in European defense cooperation is also an opportunity that Europe can seize. Two alternatives are offered to the continent: such collaboration could bolster NATO, or prove to be an alternative to it. Mentioned by French President Macron, this European defense cooperation could transform the EU to a geopolitical power instead of an exclusively economic one.
But there are also political issues that Europe will have to fix within itself to safeguard its future. Jan Macháček proposed that Brexit is also a symbol for wider political issues in Europe, and the ideas that fueled it are also present in France, Germany and the Czech Republic. While the support for the EU among European citizens is high, there are certain inconsistencies that will prove difficult to handle it in the future. Macháček asserted that further integration of countries into the Eurozone will prove difficult: in countries like Germany, disapproval of further financial and political support to struggling Eurozone countries is likely.
Charanzová discussed the fact that existing European institutions will have to be used more effectively in order to accomplish the change required, citing Macron’s proposition to have “an agency for democracy” while such an institution within the Council of Europe dealing with those issues already exists. Doubts were also raised by Emerson on the solidity of Franco-German leadership in the EU. In fact, the election of dubious characters in surrounding member states could make it hard for Macron, Merkel and whoever would take their place, to lead Europe in the direction they want.
Among others, the possibility of further defense integration advocated by Svoboda and recent economic proposals such as special commerce zones constitute opportunities that Europe can look forward to in its quest to strengthen the Union. Nevertheless, there are also significant challenges ahead. Charanzová highlighted the need for Europe to seek new leadership and strengthen its existing ties with organizations like NATO instead of starting from scratch. Problems also remain when it comes to ideology and cultural differences, as brought forward by Macháček. Different countries still have different attitudes, and as Britain values its independence, so do the people of France, Italy, Germany and the Czech Republic value different things. Therefore, as the possibility of Britain leaving inches ever closer, it is important to find viable ways to replace it, as the Union takes a blow to its international outlook by losing a key member.
Dita Charanzová, Member of the European Parliament (ANO/ALDE)
Pavel Svoboda, Member of the European Parliament (KDU-ČSL/EPP)
Michael Emerson, Associate Senior Research Fellow, Centre for European Policy Studies
Jan Macháček, Chairman of the Board, Institute for Politics and Society
Moderated by Sebastian Vagt