BREXIT: A BRITISH PHENOMENON OR EXTREME FORM OF MANIFESTATION OF A PAN-EUROPEAN TREND?


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Abstract

This article examines the UK's withdrawal from the European Union in terms of its impact on the European integration project. Examples of specific countries show that the case of Great Britain is exceptional. The conclusions are based on the analysis of the relationship between the UK and the European Union since the beginning of the implementation of the European integration project. The article pays special attention to the consequences of Brexit for the European Union. The legal issue of the possibility of a member State's withdrawal from the European Union is being considered separately.

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Against a saturated news background with endless political events, as well as news about a new virus rapidly spreading around the world, insufficiently covered, in my opinion, an event that has been agitating the minds of politicians and undermining financial markets for more than three years, namely the UK's withdrawal from the European Union, took place. Since June 2016, when the referendum took place, London has been struggling to make its way out of European integration, and loud news headlines have caused debates not only in the British Parliament, but also in the international scientific community.

Brexit supporters shared optimistic slogans: "take back control", "truly global Britain", "bring Brexit to an end" [10, p. 1]. Great Britain left in English. To what extent is this "in English" characterized by exclusivity in the European Union itself?

Special membership cases

Until now, the main line of development of the European Union was considered to be the constant expansion of integration. On July 1, 2013, the Union reached its maximum number of 28 member countries, including Croatia. Currently, there are five candidate countries (Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Turkey) and two potential candidate countries (Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo) that have the prospect of joining the EU in the medium and long term. However, over the past few years, the EU itself and various countries have begun to take such steps that have shown that the expansion process may face problems. It is necessary to consider some of them.

Turkey applied for membership in the then European Economic Community (EEC) back in 1987, and was accepted as a candidate country only 12 years later, in 1999. The advantages of Turkey's membership for the EU were recognized in various aspects: Turkey is a strategically important member of NATO, and at that time was on a difficult path to democracy and development. It was believed that EU membership could politically and socially stabilize a strategically important country with economic and political advantages for the EU. Turkey is also a Muslim country, and its membership could benefit the EU in its relations with the Muslim world. At the same time, it is this fact that has caused concern to the EU in connection with its political implications and a possible source of internal tensions. The demographic dynamics of the country was also important. Turkey would be the most populous country in the EU, overtaking Germany, which would have important implications for EU governance. Given the contrast of interests within the EU, the EU itself took on the role of a moderator and actually disrupted the accession process.

Less noticeable was the reverse case: the candidate country refused to become a member country. In March 2015, the Government of Iceland demanded that Iceland not be considered as a candidate country for EU membership. This request completed the process started on July 16, 2009, when Iceland applied to join the European Union. There were various reasons for this, but national interests on such critical issues as fisheries regulation played a leading role. Iceland's rejection was the first major turn in the EU's enlargement policy, although due to the tiny size of the country, it was much less noticeable than the politically more important and debated case of Turkey's proposed membership.

In the history of the EU, there have been other cases of deviation from the trend of expansion. Norway applied for membership in 1969 and signed the Treaties of Accession to the European Communities in 1972 on the basis of an overwhelming parliamentary majority. However, Norway's membership in the European Community was rejected in a referendum in September 1972. After that, Norway refused membership.

Denmark presented an original situation of some interest for Brexit and the difficult situation of Scotland. Denmark officially applied to join the European Economic Community on August 10, 1961, the day after the British applied. Since France vetoed Britain's membership, and taking into account the strict economic ties between Denmark and Great Britain, Denmark postponed its membership until January 1, 1973, when, as we know, Great Britain and Ireland finally joined. However, Greenland, part of the Danish Kingdom, soon took advantage of the right to autonomy that Denmark granted to Greenland in 1979, and in a referendum held in 1982, voted to secede from the Community. Greenland withdrew from the EEC, but did not withdraw from Denmark in 1985. Drawing a parallel with Brexit, it is also important to note that the parliament and the Scottish government announced that they could hold a new referendum to leave the UK and possibly join the EU if Brexit takes place [9, p. 178].

As we can see, Brexit is not the first problem of EU membership, but certainly the most important and alarming in terms of the significance of the country, its potential consequences and the difficult critical situation in which the EU finds itself.

Trend of ‘territorial expansion’

Moreover, the position of European politicians on the expansion has also not always been the same. In 2014, aware of the problems and dangers looming around and within the EU, the new President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, announced in his policy directives that the expansion should be stopped for five years: "I am fully aware that it was a historic success that brought peace and stability to our continent. However, now the EU needs to take a break in expansion so that we can consolidate what has been achieved among 28 countries" [6, p. 13]. And again, in his statement at the plenary session of the European Parliament on the eve of the vote in Strasbourg in October on November 22, 2014, President Juncker stressed: "We must not allow those who are waiting at the door to think that it can open in the next five years" [6, p. 28]. However, Brexit did not happen in accordance with the vision and goals of the Commission or the Council, but against them and at the initiative of a powerful member country.

Brexit is the first case of EU reduction initiated by an important member country. The UK is a country whose vision of integration has often diverged from that of the founding countries, and a country that has received particularly favorable treatment. The "New Settlement for the United Kingdom within the European Union" [3] is the last special regime that the UK has received in order to remain in the EU. After the referendum on June 23, this Agreement was reached at the European Council on February 18-19, 2016. And yet its exit is a heavy blow for the EU. Can this start the process of "countering expansion"?

Brexit is the first time an EU member state has held a referendum on membership in which a majority of voters supported leaving the Union. Of course, there was a lot of populism, provocative judgments and political incompetence on the part of various British politicians and the government. Perhaps the European Union favored the outcome by demonstrating its willingness to grant Britain advantageous concessions beyond reasonable ones. This suggests that tough negotiations and real threats of withdrawal can give unilateral advantages.

Undoubtedly, Brexit represents a serious political blow to the EU and the integration process, an economic and institutional blow.

Britain has traditionally had a difficult relationship with the EU. Three issues were fundamental to its membership and participation in the EU: 1) the size of the single market and trade, where most of the economic and financial interests are concentrated; 2) the intention to manage the financial unification of the continent; 3) to prevent the unification of the internal and military policies of the Union and to take an independent position, possibly in some way contrary to British interests. In addition, the difficult situation in the UK and its contradictory role hide deep systemic and institutional differences.

Brexit consequences

"Brexit will have serious consequences not only for the UK, but also for the entire European Union. ... In many ways, the future of democracy and sovereignty, security and prosperity in Europe is at stake. ... The Brexit referendum will be a turning point in post-war history" [5, p. 7].

The UK has consistently opposed the deepening of the EU project, blocked or weakened any serious integration process in critical areas (the EU budget, fiscal unification, the single currency and the role of the ECB, strengthening the role of the European Commission), thereby maximizing its membership benefits – open finance, fiscal freedom, allocations from the EU budget.

From a political and social point of view, it will be more important to see whether Brexit contributes to further alienation of citizens of other member states and increases the risk of a further series of exits from the EU, or whether it creates stronger support for the EU.

However, the worst expectations were not met, and the first indirect social and political evidence after Brexit suggests that the EU has gained more serious support.

From an economic point of view, it is important to say that final conclusions on this issue can be made when trade relations finally become more stable. It is also important to understand that the economic relations between the UK, the EU and third countries were strongly affected by the international economic crisis of both 2008 and 2020.

Given the great uncertainty in assessing the economic consequences of Brexit, we should turn to the problem of regulating withdrawal from the European Union. In fact, one of the main difficulties associated with the withdrawal of any participating country is that this process, in the end, is left for negotiations between interested partners: The EU and its permanent members on the one hand, and the outgoing country on the other. All this is regulated by the rather general Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty [4]. The article is quite liberal, since it provides that any member country can withdraw from the Union only by its own decision: "it can decide to withdraw from the Union in accordance with its constitutional requirements." The only obligation is to notify the European Council of your intention. This obviously leaves the initiative entirely in the hands of the withdrawing Member State and indirectly strengthens its position in the negotiations.

Conclusion

Brexit is certainly a major political defeat for which the European Union was not institutionally prepared. So far, crises have been caused by conflicts of interests between participating countries (the vacant seat of Gaullist France) or unforeseen events (international crises). This time it is a significant member country that has decided to withdraw from the Union, and not a simple clash of interests within the Union.

Estimates of the impact of Brexit on the EU have changed over time. Immediately after the referendum in the UK, it was widely believed that Brexit exposed the fragility of the European project. This is not surprising, since the 2016 referendum and the subsequent decision of the UK government to trigger Article 50 TEU came at a time when the European political landscape was already colored by the ongoing migration crisis, internal and external security problems that arose as a result of terrorist threats and the growth of Euroscepticism. According to Brak and Costa, "Euroscepticism has become an integral part of the political landscape of most member states," and EU institutions have had to soften their pro-European discourse [1, p. 110].  Moreover, the decline in public support for the European Union was especially noticeable in three major member states, including Great Britain, Germany and France [7, p. 192].

There is no doubt that the EU should have acted immediately on the results of the referendum and confirmed its authority among the member states. The first step was to reiterate the importance and value of the EU project. In September 2016, EU leaders met at the European Council in Bratislava to discuss the immediate consequences of Brexit [2].  The sense of urgency was evident from the wording of the Bratislava Declaration. It was important to convince the member states that, although this decision of Britain is regrettable, it should not affect the future of the EU [2].  The need to change the political climate in the EU was also recognized in the Bratislava Declaration [2] and subsequent political documents indicating that populist parties use this political climate to their advantage. These challenges were further reflected in the Commission's White Paper on the Future of Europe, which opened a discussion on possible ways of future European integration [8].

Of course, the case of the UK is exceptional – the first exit of a member country in the EU in practice. Much attention is also paid to the very fact of the referendum. In addition, one can observe a completely unique position of Great Britain in European integration almost from the moment of accession, its distinct influence on the political course and structure of this organization. It is also difficult to dispute the special attitude of the European Union towards the UK, based on historical facts about the numerous concessions made by the EU in favor of this member state.  All of this, in a sense, makes Britain a unique member of the European Union.

Brexit is a shock that was necessary in order to start putting small, short-sighted national issues aside, putting convergence criteria in the long term and focusing on institutional and structural integration problems, whether general or national. At least, this is the hope of all those who believe that the EU is a fundamental value for the life of the European population in the present and future.

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About the authors

Юлия Гусак

Author for correspondence.
Email: julia.gusak.m@gmail.com

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