Brexit on the Brink

For an insight into Britain’s drastic choice and what it means for the European project, try taking an outside view – from just outside the EU’s borders.

In Georgia they call it ბრექსიტი (“Breksiti”), in Serbia and Macedonia, it’s Брегзит (“Bregzit”). Beyond the outer borders of the EU, they’ve found words of their own for Britain’s flight of fancy. In states with aspirations to EU membership such as these, Eurosceptics had a field day. Indeed, in one poll last August, more Russians (54%) than Brits (38%) believed Brexit had been the right decision for the UK. Pro-Kremlin Russian commentators sat poised at their keyboards — why, they gloated, should Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine put so much on the line to join a sinking ship?

Britain has passed the test of European transformation, and popped out the other side.

The morning after the vote, I wandered through Old Tbilisi’s streets in a daze. “How did you vote in the Brexit referendum?” asked an Azerbaijani friend — a question as common as it is loaded. We commiserated; he poured wine and added “don’t worry; I don’t think the UK needs Europe anymore.” Over the months since, particularly when travelling around eastern Europe, I have considered my friend’s question in light of the glib optimism of triumphant Brexiteers. His words could have assuaged their occasional pangs of doubt; Britain, as a great power, has passed the test of European transformation, and popped out the other side. It was a strange synthesis, echoing both the common sense of Eastern Europe’s post-socialist transition and the breathtakingly obstinate confidence of British exceptionalism.

I recalled an installation at Georgia’s independence day celebrations the month before. Visitors could walk down “Georgia’s European Path”, through a row of metal arches, each bearing a billboard hailing the advantages of NATO and EU membership. There was no endgame. I passed beneath the final arch, into the sunshine and, I expect, Normal European Country.

In a small way, EU hopefuls in the Balkans and Caucasus featured in an unflattering tug-of-war between Brexit enthusiasts and their opponents. For its part, London proved a valuable voice in promoting EU accession for Bosnia, Croatia, and Serbia. Little wonder, then, than an inquiry has already been launched in Westminster to reassess British engagement in the region.

Last April, Michael Gove suggested that in the event of Brexit coming to pass, the UK could enjoy the same relationship with the union as Albania, Bosnia and Ukraine. The pro-remain camp fired back, issuing a poster featuring an incredulous Chuka Umuna in front of Buckingham Palace. The Union Jack had been replaced with an Albanian flag. “The leave campaign want us to quit the single market and be like Albania” began the caption. “Seriously?”

Brexit on the Brink

After xenophobic attacks on Poles, these snorts of derision aren’t uncommon in post-Brexit Britain. And whatever the UK’s decision on the European project, the brand’s still popular — at least, outside the union. Indeed, what else were the events of 2014 in Kyiv for many European liberals but a re-run of the moral clarities of 1989; the end of history holding sway on Europe’s edge?

Against the background of a European crisis of responses to migration, visa-free regimes, as important benchmarks on the road towards often receding prospects of EU membership, risk inflaming further domestic opposition for EU politicians. Nevertheless, as of last month, Ukraine and Georgia now enjoy visa free access to the Schengen area. Right-wing tabloids also sat up and took notice: “EU chiefs grant 50 MILLION Georgians and Ukrainians visa-free travel to bloc” wrote the Express.

Strong and stable neighbours

In parts of Europe once described as “new,” to be Eurosceptic means to be pro-Russian.

In parts of Europe once described as “new”, to be Eurosceptic means to be pro-Russian — or rather, to be slated as such. For kleptocratic regimes which appear to teeter on a geopolitical brink, that ambiguity is just fine. In May, in a ceremony in Belgrade, Aleksandar Vučić was inaugurated as Serbia’s president (until the recent appointment of Ana Brnabić, he was also acting prime minister, and some Serbs joke he would have run for Serbian Orthodox Patriarch).

Brussels has chosen the strong and stable approach; a few days after the Brexit letter was delivered to Donald Tusk, Brussels dispatched an obsequious letter of congratulations to Serbia’s new president on his questionable victory at the polls. Vučić, who has improbably managed the political transition from Milosević’s Minister of Information to pro-European reformist, is also in Berlin’s good graces following his comparably constructive handling of the thousands of refugees crossing Serbia en route to EU member states. In blessing Vučić’s regime, as one Belgrade-based journalist put it to me shortly after the presidential election, Brussels has effectively abandoned the beleaguered pro-European section of the country’s opposition.

Brexit’s lessons for Eastern Europe (and vice versa)

At the beginning of June, Vučić restored the EU flag to Serbia’s presidency building, removed by his predecessor Tomislav Nikolić. They’ve been raised elsewhere, too: in the Moldovan capital last December, the union’s flag was removed from the presidency by Igor Dodon, the country’s pugnacious new pro-Kremlin president. This small country between Romania and Ukraine has been systematically plundered under pro-Russian and pro-European governments alike, most notoriously in the billion dollar scandal, which led to the arrest of incumbent prime minister Vlad Filat.

Dodon’s pro-Putin bombast plays an important role in a curious balancing act with Vlad Plahotniuc, the country’s most powerful man and informal controller of the parliamentary majority. The loathed oligarch presents himself as the pre-eminent pro-European in Moldovan politics today, and has been grudgingly courted by both Brussels and Washington alike. “I’m not pro-Russian”, exasperated oppositionists sighed during my trip to the Moldovan capital, “I’m anti-oligarch!”

Real victories for Real People

As I sit in Warsaw writing these words, the Polish parliament has just voted to make the country’s judiciary subordinate to its legislature. The prospect of party political control over the courtroom will be enshrined by law. Observers are now wondering what exactly Brussels can do in response — deploy Article 7, suspend voting rights, and grant the ruling party yet another pretext to whip up popular support at home?
President Andrzej Duda has now promised to veto some of the reforms to the judiciary; a silver lining, though just one. The damage has already been done to other public institutions in Poland.

Right-populist parties across Europe are setting their sights on the institutions of liberal democracy.

For all the histrionics, this latest cause for concern reflects the weakness of the levers at Brussels’ disposal — and its willingness to pull them. It would appear that EU conditionality effectively ends once a country joins; at the end of history as they were, the architects of the union’s expansion eastwards may not have seen “illiberal backsliding” among its brave new members as a serious prospect. Right-populist parties across Europe are setting their sights on the institutions of liberal democracy — a system of checks and balances which they regard as an artificial obstacle to a complete and unimpeded triumph for The Real People, elastically defined. “Impossibilism,” as Jarosław Kaczyński called the Constitutional Tribunal’s role in impeding his populist programme, could well be a new European watchword.

And perhaps that’s the potency of Brexit, beyond the boundaries of Schengen. It’s caused a small dent in the teleology of what “Europeanisation” means — for better or for worse.

Though mostly for worse: in a Europe of frightened majorities seeking right-populist succour, some still cling to geographical metaphors to describe this backsliding — all the better to outsource its origins. As Donald Tusk put it yesterday, the latest scandal in Warsaw showed that Poland was moving “backwards and eastwards.” In light of the city’s latest high-profile visitor, it’s strange that the two should be synonymous.

Further East, in Tbilisi, the flag of the Council of Europe still hangs from every government building. Supporters would it bold — prefigurative, even. Detractors call it the mark of a cargo cult. This year, I’ll walk backwards along the European path. And if the red-and-black Albanian flag is hoisted over Buckingham Palace as a result, I’ll nod approvingly. For all the introspection it’d do us.


Maxim Edwards
Maxim Edwards is Commissioning Editor at openDemocracy Russia. He writes on nationalism, migration, minorities and memory, with a focus on post-Soviet countries. His articles have appeared in Al-Jazeera, Al Monitor, Souciant and the Forward among other publications.