Brexit: The doomsday scenario has come true

The United Kingdom has voted to leave the European Union. This week, Political Critique published Michał Sutowski’s text, in which he analyzes the possible consequences of this decision. We are re-publishing this article today.

Will they leave or won’t they leave? In Poland this may be the first time we sense that what is happening elsewhere is of great concern to us. This really is our business. It has taken us almost a decade to understand that there is no “mainstream” to keep up with. What exists instead is a political edifice to which we are tasked to convert by either moving it to another level or destroying the whole thing.

Through the debate concerning whether or not Great Britain will leave or remain in the European Union we have heard all possible arguments: those for remaining (big business, the establishment, the Eurocrats, the Tories, the Left, president Obama and leaders of the Commonwealth), those against remaining (small business, certain Tories, members of both the Left and Right and Marine Le Pen) and of course those who are “both for and against” (Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party). This is the first time that things have been spoken about openly, and in public, rather than being whispered about behind the scenes. The comparison between the EU and the USSR, a result of Marine Le Pen’s statement in which she compares Brexit to the fall of the Berlin Wall, points to a symbolic beginning of “liberation dominoes.” Should British leave the EU, they will have to sustain great losses according to Elmar Brok. Finally, there will be no velvet divorce, no “Norwegian-style packages” which allow access to a single market, because you are either in or out – states Wolfgang Schäuble. Despite political Euro-correctness in the media perishing a long time ago, for diplomats and politicians, verdicts of this type can still be considered to be a taboo.

In Poland this may be the first time we sense that what is happening elsewhere is of great concern to us.

The British referendum on 23 June may not decide Europe’s fate completely, but it is bound to have either a negative or positive influence on future events. From the Polish point of view, the effect can either be bearable, bad, or catastrophic. I have no doubt that Brexit – by no means impossible at this moment– increases the likelihood of the worst scenario: that the European Union will be replaced by a Eurasian collective of powers. What is currently at stake is not “whether we can keep things the same”, for there is no way this can be done, but whether the new division of Europe will be permanent.

So what will Europe be like (for Poland) should Britain exit? What will it be like should the British stay in the EU? At least two responses are of importance here. First, the safest bet can be made about “the European Union without the United Kingdom” in a static sense, i.e. what Europe will be lacking and what may be its gains, if we consider the impact and positions of the British on various issues to date. Because of the sheer scale of its impact, Britain clearly makes a difference. The uncertain part is whether the effect of Brexit will go beyond the “loss” of Britain simply as an element of the EU. The referendum, regardless of its result, lends steam to the tendencies that already exist in Europe. It accelerates the grand restructuring of the EU, though the direction of this change still unknown to us, and generates dynamics over which no entity can have complete control.

The June decision cannot be narrowed down to a simple dilemma, e.g. an EU that is more liberal and national-oriented versus an EU embracing protectionism and federalism. One cannot help feeling that the Brexit vote is a great experiment in “unintended consequences”. An interesting, if not an exciting one, though we need to keep it in mind that “may you live in interesting times” was, after all, a curse in the mouths of the ancient Chinese. However, one thing is said: statics comes first, dynamics comes next.

What would the hypothetical European Union look like without Britain? And how does it comply with our interests, plans, and geopolitical imagination?

In the realm of the economy and trade, the EU without the UK would mean first of all less of a push towards the TTIP (the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership), although currently the treaty stands relatively little chance against the French elites who are in alliance with German public opinion. As for the access to the common market, the British will suffer more severely than the rest of the EU. As a result of the returns to scale alone, the EU makes for 12% of Britain’s exports; for the EU Britain weighs four times less. Although strong measures for protecting markets through customs are impossible because of the World Trade Organisation, there are seemingly technical methods (quality standards, banana curves…) that can make the lives of “fugitives” a great deal harder. This will be sought by the Eurocrats (as a deterring measure) and specific actors, from German car manufacturers to French farmers, to financial centres around the EU, all of whom struggle by themselves on the market. Hardly being a velvet divorce (Ulrike Guerot is right to note that the parting of spouses is usually followed by a struggle for the children, the car and the insurance policy), it will certainly goad the British into insisting on some kind of repercussions. Should there be an embargo (a sanitary one, of course) on Polish ham, our industry would be able to withstand it one way or another, but barriers to the free movement of people could be a huge problem. Much as it is impossible to imagine British expelling one million Poles back to the continent, they can still make their lives harder, by curbing their access to social services and labour protection. Brutal exploitation of cheap labour is like a manna from heaven to employers. Stigmatising this category will serve to channel the resentment of the working class. Two birds with one stone, as they say in Britain. Faced with such realities, a number of Polish immigrants will no doubt choose to return, although it is not like they have anything here that they could return to: others will apply for citizenship, loosening their ties with the old country.

As far as the Union’s various policies are concerned, the EU with Britain is better off than without her.

Then there are foreign policy and defences. Of those in Europe in favour of driving a harder bargain with Russia who are powerful enough to really have a say, Germany stands alone, or, to be more precise, it is solely Angela Merkel. However, her party colleagues and coalition partners would be quick to persuade her that the solitary (now that the British support has been lost) pressure placed on Hungarians and Italians to sign sanctions makes no sense, and that the Polish obsession provides no reason for “needlessly escalating the conflict” and “antagonising the Union’s key partner in the East”. Russian influences on the other shore of the English Channel are a long story indeed – the real estate market and the City are the very bastions of appeasement – but on Crimea and sanctions, David Cameron took a harsher stance towards Russia.

The army is a more complex problem. Great Britain makes for one fifth of the Union’s defence budget, and is its only military power besides France. On the other hand, the British have firmly opposed plans to “Europeanize” defences, pushing for engagement in NATO structures and a strict “division of work”; in this situation, when US involvement in Europe is no longer a matter of course, “Europeanization” may be the only solution. But then without the UK, the priorities of the European defence policy will be dictated by the French, whose primary interest is the EU’s endorsement of interventionism in Central Africa. The Germans faced with such a situation will not die for Klaipeda; in short, Brexit means the slanting of the EU’s “geopolitical imagination” southwards – even if we are joined by Sweden in our thinking about defence, it will be not enough. Especially if Marine Le Pen wins the 2017 election, Africa will come before the Baltics and NATO will play a dwindling role in Europe. Therefore, for Poland the prospects are not bright.

There is also the question of energy. The United Kingdom defends shale gas (good for the Polish Leading party, PiS, but bad for Poland) and presses for the achievement of emission goals (bad for PiS, good for the world), but is also a vocal advocate of keeping the distribution of energy separate from its production. To put it briefly: it unconditionally supports the European Commission while it whips Gazprom for unlawful monopolistic practices (good for PiS, good for Poland). If the British leave the EU, similar to the sanctions on Russia, the pressure to continue assertive politics in this respect will wane: without a “green transformation” of Europe, we will be likely to grow dependent on Russian gas.

So much for static considerations: as far as the Union’s various policies are concerned, the EU with Britain is better off than without her. When it comes to TTIP, it will be up to someone else to settle the case, most probably the French. For the economy, it’s up in the air: Anglo-Saxon neoliberalism is harmful to Europe, but the right to work in the UK benefits the Poles who are currently living there. Perhaps without the United Kingdom. Europe could become more pro-social, however this is where dynamics come into play.

Anglo-Saxon neoliberalism is harmful to Europe, but the right to work in the UK benefits the Poles who are currently living there.

For “what will the Union be without Britain?” and “what will be the effect of Britain’s exit from the EU?” are not the same question. This is why one cannot pass judgement on Brexit solely from the position of the issues where the stance and “contribution” of the British inspire our protest – the hypocritical free market agenda, the drive to cut budgets, as well as post-imperial nostalgia.  If on the 23 June over 50% choose to leave, Europe may experience a tremendous acceleration. That is a growth in strength of decentralist tendencies that have been on the rise throughout the Union for years.

The first consequence will be the growing acknowledgement that in Europe, we are not all in the same boat. If the British decide that the European mainland is too far away across the sea, the “not my business” attitude will become a default setting. The Slovaks will say they don’t care about the refugees in Italy or the Greek debt; the Spanish will choose to think that the Balts and the Ukrainians may be the Poles’ concern but surely not theirs; while the Germans and the Dutch will see no reason why they should pay for the lazybones from the South and the savages from the East. True, everyone has been saying all this for years, but Brexit will be visible proof that there are no European issues, only somebody else’s.

Another question is the exposure of German dominance, which inspires the greatest fear not in the Germans themselves. Brexit would mean a major check on Angela Merkel’s leadership skills, where she could fall short of expectations as a lone empress, or it could equally solidify the Germanness of Europe. This means that the strategic decisions made without an equivalent partner will either not be imposed or they will inspire an opposition from the allied forces of the South and East. Decomposition or break-up: these are two possible scenarios for a “German Europe” without hypocrisy, brakes or equilibrium, but with one sun in the sky.

An alternative would be the old-new German-French engine, but come 2017 president Hollande will not make a single bold step towards integration. Besides, certain subjects will be back in the game, on which the heirs of Charlemagne have simply different positions: TTIP, the vision for defence policy and, more broadly, the role of the European Union in the world, the boundaries and instruments of military involvement, as well as marginal conditions of macroeconomic integration… The ever more assertive French society will not consent to a rerun of the Merkozy model when the president of the Republic was the guarantor of the Bundeskanzlerin’s ideas; Germans themselves are not unanimous on key issues. One should not expect the German-French engine to power continental Europe, since both countries run on different fuels.

As if we had not enough trouble, for obvious reasons, there is going to be a heightened tension between the Eurozone and the outsiders; today it is too early to say that the EU is the Eurozone plus appetizers, as Britain is still among the main courses. In the new situation, further integration inside the Eurozone – inevitable if it is to survive – will be all the more visible on the agenda. The Euro will have a genuine (à la Federal Reserve or Bank of England) “last-instance creditor”, debts will be shared, and there will be a resulting political body – or will it cease to exist? Claus Offe wrote a couple of years ago that what was necessary was impossible at the time. When we look at the opinion polls, we will indeed see that hardly anyone is thinking about deepening integration, whereas the restoration of more power to national states is the wish of two thirds of the Greek, 44 per cent of the Dutch, 43 per cent of the Germans, and 39 per cent of the French and Italians. Large masses of Europeans have no understanding of the position of the European Parliament, the Commission and the Chancellor of Germany.

[easy-tweet tweet=”Brexit will be visible proof that there are no European issues, only somebody else’s.”]

Is there a way to reconcile all of this? We know that the Dutch and the Germans, just like the Greeks and the Italians, grow more and more sceptical of Brussels – only for reasons that are almost poles apart. It is thus not out of the question – and the pro-integration elites of the central states may arrive at a similar conclusion – that the Dutch, Germans or Austrians, could actually be persuaded to form a federal state, on the condition that they would be… in good company. By this they mean their own company, without the eastern and southern peripheries. Such a Carolingian variant of the European core, built in opposition to the outside would be practically marked by only one contradiction, i.e. disparate visions of economic policies espoused by France and Germany. One might, however, imagine a compromise of sorts, all the more that such a “core” would consist of countries much more like one another than the present “broad” Eurozone with Greece or Portugal.

It is a separate matter that Brexit may lend momentum to Marie Le Pen: already in 2012, she promised to extract France from NATO, and more recently to carry out a French referendum on EU membership. In such a case even the “Carolingian” scenario seems hardly plausible – the French would vote for the leader of the National Front not with a view to be led by her into a European superstate. It would then be not so much a “Europe of several speeds”, since that requires France as part of the “core”, but rather an axis, or combination of powers with merging (it is, after all, the 21st, not the 19th century) spheres of influence. It is no mystery that in such a configuration, Poland would make its appearance on the menu rather than at the table, to use the expression of the former minister of foreign affairs.

The above scenarios – each the more unfavourable to Poland, the more closed the European “core” and the more sovereign the European powers – are made likely by Brexit. It is, however, obvious that a vote for staying does not mean the conservation of the status quo, as changes are inevitable.

Anti-European populists from Italy, Sweden, Holland, Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic and Denmark will hold their sway one way or another: if the United Kingdom leaves, they will read it as a message that the EU is falling apart. If Britain remains, then even mainstream politicians, feeling the pressure from the populist camps, will seek renegotiation of their membership. How is Bremain better than Brexit, then?

This is explained by Robert Skidelsky, whom one could hardly accuse of sympathising with David Cameron. Bremain means, according to him, a chance for the European South and East to form an orbit of “looser integration” under Britain’s lead. It will be Britain who will lend them weight: without the British, they will be only a peripheral hotchpotch of countries vying against one another for the attention of the powerful “core”, which must emerge for reasons described above. Only such a relative and incomplete, but nevertheless a balance of powers will allow for a division of two to three circles of integration, and thus offer some chance that the federal “core” remains an open project, with an invitation extended to those interested, rather than a “Carolingian civilisation” stronghold, standing watch against the barbarians from the East and the sloths from the South.

We are in the same boat as PiS, even though the government is right to fear Brexit for completely the wrong reasons.

We thus have basically two variants: the first one is a combination of powers, the favourite of Vladimir Putin, where Russia is one of three, maybe four big players in Eurasia. Variant number two isa fortified stronghold in the middle of Europe which is also convenient to Russia because the “close core” will eagerly sell it the Polish or Baltic peripheries in exchange for cheap gas and oil (useful while the “green transformation” is under way). Guy Verhovstadt is right in stating that it is no coincidence that the president of Russia is rubbing his hands at the prospect of Brexit.

And that is why we have no choice but to count on Bremain, even if it is also what the PiS government is relying on. If Britain remains in the Union, PiS’s idea of Poland as vice-leader of a loose circle of integration would be closer to becoming true, but chances are also growing of a transfer between the “core” and the “second circle,” i.e. Carolingian Europe remaining open. If Britain steps out, PiS’s idea would be redundant, only it won’t be to the Polish Euroenthusiasts’ delight at all, but to Russia’s, because instead of a Mediterranean we would have in our region a geopolitical void. In this way, we are in the same boat as PiS, even though the government is right to fear Brexit for completely the wrong reasons.

Translated by Mikołaj Denderski.


Michał Sutowski
Political scientist, columnist, editor. Coordinator of the Institute for Advanced Studies. Translator from English and German. Editor of the political writings of Jacek Kuroń and Stanisław Brzozowski. In 2012, he studied at the Yale University as part of the Political Critique scholarship.