If the UK leaves the EU as planned in March 2019, the political ballgame in Europe will change profoundly. A great deal of attention has been paid to the details of the Brexit negotiations themselves and how the UK's departure will affect big EU member states like France and Germany. But how Brexit will impact the political weight of and the dynamics between smaller member states has garnered far less attention than it should. The departure of the UK will change the balance of power in the EU. Its northern allies, including the Nordics and the Dutch, will lose about 12% of their voting power in Brussels without the UK, and southern states will gain prominence. The remaining 27 EU Member States are aware that this will affect the way they conduct politics in Brussels - the question is how, exactly.
Caroline de Gruyter
If the UK leaves the EU as planned in March 2019, the political ballgame in Europe will change profoundly. A great deal of attention has been paid to the details of the Brexit negotiations themselves and how the UK's departure will affect big EU member states like France and Germany. But how Brexit will impact the political weight of and the dynamics between smaller member states has garnered far less attention than it should.
The departure of the UK will change the balance of power in the EU. Its northern allies, including the Nordics and the Dutch, will lose about 12% of their voting power in Brussels without the UK, and southern states will gain prominence. The remaining 27 EU Member States are aware that this will affect the way they conduct politics in Brussels - the question is how, exactly.
As a result of Brexit, two mutually reinforcing trends are emerging. First and foremost, there is a clear realignment going on across the continent. Many Member States - particularly smaller ones who often sided with the UK in the past - realize that they will have to rely more on coalition building, with a broader roster of partners, post-Brexit. In all capitals, diplomats and policymakers are actively seeking new partnerships across the continent. This is not because these officials have suddenly discovered a greater infatuation with the EU, but because they need each other more than before to make themselves heard in Brussels. A striking example of this is a joint paper on euro reform that the so-called new Hanseatic League finance ministers produced in early March. These eight northern ministers, clearly worried that France and Germany will bypass smaller countries on euro reform and isolate non-euro countries, warned Paris and Berlin to avoid “far-reaching transfers of competence to the European level.”
The second trend is more political, more long-term, and, therefore, more difficult to detect: Brexit has unified the EU in some regards. On issues such as defense, where the UK was a spoiler, there is now more unity - or, at least, the balance of power is shifting that way. This could lead to a change in political direction. Klaus Welle, secretary general of the European Parliament, sees new political energy emerging in Europe, not only in the field of defense but also on financial regulation and the budget. “For the EU,” he says, “Brexit means losing capacity, because a large and influential country is leaving. But Brexit also means that we gain the capacity to act. We are fully on the move again. It will be a different union from now on.”
Visiting national capitals, a new sense of dynamism is apparent, as European diplomats and policymakers explore new potential partnerships. This process is forcing everybody to reset priorities and develop new goals and strategies. `After years of crises, political deadlock, and euro-pessimism, policymakers are looking to the future again. This is changing the tone of conversations in Brussels.
The need to build new coalitions runs through all post-Brexit strategic debates in Europe. Countries that have leaned heavily on the UK for years are realizing that there will not be one single replacement for this pillar. Smaller EU countries in particular are suddenly looking to identify other member states that have shared hopes or priorities. Former liberal-democrat member of the European Parliament Andrew Duff, now president of the federalist Spinelli Group, explains that “in a way, Brexit makes European countries more European. It obliges them to deepen relationships on the continent, to learn more about each other’s positions, and to look for issues that can unite them.”
Deliberations in Northern Europe are changing markedly. Gone are the days, for instance, when the Netherlands or Denmark could count on almost automatic support from the UK on the liberal issues they care deeply about, including trade, innovation, and competition in Europe’s internal market. In the past, if The Hague or Copenhagen wanted to block or push a particular issue in Brussels, they would often sound out London first. With London’s support assured, they would have almost enough votes in Brussels, and finding a few more allies to reach the necessary threshold was often easy.
That is no longer the case. Nowadays, there are profound deliberations in Dutch ministries about post-Brexit strategies. In Copenhagen, too, brainstorms are being held about new tactics; even retired Danish officials are invited to participate on occasion. In Stockholm, senior officials admit that they have so heavily relied on British “guidance” and support since their entry into the EU in 1995 that they often saw the union entirely through a British prism. Even in the European Parliament, no member state voted more often alongside British lawmakers than the Swedes.
Signs of renewed engagement are apparent in Central Europe, too, where countries traditionally seen as more skeptical of integration are showing signs of deeper cooperation in certain areas. The Czech request for “observer status” in the Eurogroup in the summer of 2017 is one example. Former Czech PM Bohuslav Sobotka's statement that permanent structured cooperation on defence “should be initiated as soon as possible” is another. Sobotka's successor, Andrej Babis, has offered contradictory opinions about the EU so far - both positive and negative - but has reiterated that he wants to remain close to Germany and France.
During an off-the-record meeting in Vienna last summer, a Czech politician explained that the shock of Brexit had been profound in his country. The Czechs, he said, had taken a euroskeptic route in recent years. While economically dependent on Germany, they moved politically closer to Budapest and Warsaw (and, to a lesser extent, Bratislava), for example opposing the EU-wide redistribution of refugees. Czech President Milos Zeman, a severe EU critic, seems closer to Moscow than to Berlin. Still, the politician in Vienna said, “the minute we heard the result of the Brexit vote, the debate about euro membership flared up in political circles in Prague. We are in the heart of Europe. We cannot afford to be politically isolated.”
It is impossible to predict whether these new groupings and regroupings have any future at all. It is equally difficult to foresee a more harmonious Europe after the UK’s departure—considering, for example, the fundamental standoff between the European Commission and Poland, or a recent Greek veto preventing the EU from condemning human rights violations in China and Venezuela. Christophe Hillion, research professor at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, argues that “after the crises of recent years and Brexit, EU countries are trying to close ranks. . . . Flexibility in the sense of derogations is moving out of the union, together with the UK. Member states are tired of opt-outs, cherry-picking, and divisions. To those who want more flexibility, the answer will be: ‘For that you can use article 50.’” In other words: you can leave, just like the Brits.
It is fair to say, however, that Brexit has prompted a great deal of political movement. The direction of this movement is yet unknown, but it has instilled a new sense of unity among the EU’s twenty-seven remaining members. Contrary to what some had predicted, Brexit has not led to enthusiasm for more EU departures. On the contrary, member states have so far demonstrated they want to explore new ways to stay together. (abridged)
The author is the European Council on Foreign Relations member. The article was origibally published by the ECFR.
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