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Impact of Brexit on EU Foreign Policy

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: International Relations
Wordcount: 2911 words Published: 12th Feb 2019

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The European Union will face a new kind of challenge with the exit of Britain: the departure of one of its largest and most substantial member states. No member states has yet made the decision to exit the European Union, so Brexit is a significant event in the history of Europe. The leaving of a member state from the EU is unprecedented and therefore the political consequences are likely to be considerable and prolonged, not only for Britain but for the European Union as a whole (Hobolt 2016). United Kingdom leaving the European Union would change how EU institutions operate not just during the withdrawal period, but also afterwards. The long-term impacts are still uncertain, the process of Brexit takes many years and the full consequences will not be known for a long time. It is only possible to examine probable scenarios. It would most likely affect the European Union’s global role and the balance of power among member states and therefore the policies that the EU would pursue. It would also alter the resources upon which the EU could draw (Patel, Reh 2016). In addition to that, Brexit will probably encourage populist, anti-immigration and Eurosceptic forces around Europe and that in turn, in the worst case scenario, could eventually create an unravelling of the European Union. Britain is one country among 28, but it is also 15 per cent of the European economy and an eighth of its population. British governments have also been centrally involved in EU’s foreign and security policy. Therefore, there is a lot at stake and Britain leaving the European Union is not only a turning point for Britain but also for the foreign policy of the EU (Raines 2016). Brexit could also alter the relations between the EU and U.S. since the U.S. considers UK as a ‘bridge’ between themselves and the continental Europe. Brexit certainly has serious impacts on the foreign policy of the EU and could possibly even create a rupture in Europe. On the other hand, Brexit could be an opportunity for the European Union to show that they can handle a “challenge”. It depends how the European Union can handle this situation. In this essay I am going to analyse the plausible and realistic short-term, but mainly long-term impacts of Brexit on European Union foreign policy and global role and shortly go over how it could impact the relations between the European Union and the United States.

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Brexit will significantly weaken the EUs global role. For many, the EU is known for the symbol it stands for- binding Europeans together to resolve conflicts and differences collectively. Brexit puts that symbol of international cooperation to test (Raines 2016). Diplomacy, soft power and international collaboration are the three key aspects of European Union’s foreign policy and its influential powers. Those aspects would be less powerful on the World stage without UK, since the UK is EU’s one of the most important member states and international ‘star-players’ (Patel, Reh 2016). Britain has been centrally involved in EU’s foreign policy and has pushed forward the enlargement of the union, trade liberalisation and the global fight against climate change. With Brexit, the EU loses a key member state with major strategic, economic and diplomatic abilities. With that the European Union fails to be ‘attractive’ internationally if even its own member do not believe in the EU’s ability to promote its model, norms and values any more (Weilandt 2017). The EU’s influence on the global scale is also decreasing with the parting of major military power in the EU. UK and France are currently the only member states within the EU with considerable military power and losing one of them could undermine any future development of serious EU military capabilities (Patel, Reh 2016). The European Union’s legitimacy has already suffered due to its poor handling of the Eurozone sovereign debt crisis and the refugee situation (Weilandt 2017). Immigration and the refugee crisis, alongside with economic issues, were also one of the key arguments for having the UKs referendum to decide whether to stay or leave the European Union and fundamental in explaining why the country ultimately voted for Brexit (Clarke, Goodwin, Whiteley 2017). Now the question is, whether those concerns are exceptional for British people or can there be expected similar uprisings against the European Union in other member states (Hobolt 2016).

Brexit could lead to cycle of disintegration. Some member states that were concerned with their sovereignty already before, with the main concerns rooting from European Union’s poor handling the refugee crisis since 2015, could follow in Britain’s footsteps, for example, Poland and Hungary (Leonard 2016). There have been evidence in studies carried out by MCLaren in 2002 and 2006, along with other studies, that Euroscepticism is closely related to general hostility and resentment to other cultures, such as unfavourable mind-set towards immigrants and minority groups (Hobolt 2016). In addition to diminishing the EU on the world stage, brexit could therefore encourage and strengthen Euroscepticism, anti-immigration and anti-democratic forces in Europe who would seek to rethink their country’s membership with the European Union or at least some rearrangement of their relations and conditions with the EU (Patel, Reh 2016).

Although referendums on whether to leave the EU or not, are possible, given the pressure from rising populist parties, it is still not very likely. Most mainstream parties in Western Europe are pro-EU. The Eurosceptic parties would need to form a coalition with the pro-EU parties to gain office and muster a parliamentary majority in order to call a referendum on EU membership. Even the most successful populist parties in Western Europe, such as the Danish People’s Party and the Dutch and Austrian Freedom Parties would find it quite difficult to raise a parliamentary majority to, in turn, call in a vote on the matter of the EU membership.

While EU referendums are not very likely in other member states, the rise of populist Eurosceptic parties nevertheless pose a serious challenge to the European Union (Hobolt 2016).There is a growing Euroscepticism in Europe after the Eurozone and migrant crises, nevertheless, opinion polls since 2012 have persistently shown that Britain is rather the exception than the rule when it comes to support for leaving the European Union (Hobolt 2016).Yet, it cannot be said that Brexit vote is uniquely a British phenomenon, it indicates the same conceptions that stimulate increases in support for populist Eurosceptic parties across the Europe in recent years, especially in the outcome of the Eurozone and migrant crises. Concerns about immigration and the diminishing national identity in a globalized world are still growing in Europe, beyond Britain. (Hobolt 2016).

Better safe than sorry and European Union would still want to rule out any chance for a Brexit domino effect and therefore will make it difficult for Britain to leave the EU, avoiding the precedent of easy withdrawal, so other member states would not even think about leaving the European Union (Patel, Renwick 2016). Germany and France might even push for more immigrant and integrations in Europe to show “unity” (Patel, Reh 2016).  The EU tends to use further integration as a solution crises, this has well been demonstrated by the Eurozone crisis and those surrounding the Schengen area (Oliver, Williams 2016). This attempt to push for even more integration in Europe in order to demonstrate unity, could set off a counter reaction from member states that have a Eurosceptic parties and lead to even more Euroscepticism in Europe, based on the studies mentioned before. As has Donald Dusk, President of the European Council said: “Obsessed with the idea of instant and total integration, we failed to notice that ordinary people, the citizens of Europe, do not share our Euro-enthusiasm”(Grant 2016). It should be worrying that many voters across Europe see European Union as part of the problem rather than a solution when it comes to protecting the ordinary citizens from the troubles of an even more globalised and integrated world (Hobolt 2016).

Brexit would very likely change the balance of power within the European Union and therefore also the policies that the EU could draw (Patel, Reh 2016). It is argued that Brexit could strengthen the position of Germany, shift alliances and possibly also either strengthen or weaken smaller states. Until this point, Germany has already determined the EU’s response on past issues such as the Eurozone crisis, refugees and the war on in Ukraine (Grant 2016). The departure of the UK could further reassure Germany’s position, since UK has often served as a critical counterweight. This could lead to many smaller member states worrying about German domination (Patel, Reh 2016). Some analysts have noted that without the UK, Germany would be expected to subsidize more to European defence and security also. This would be an undesirable position and responsibility for Germany.  It has also been argued that that with the Europe’s other dominant powers, France, Spain and Italy, in either decline or political unrest, Germany needs the UK to help it lead the European Union (Patel, Renwick 2016). Although Germany needs UK to co-lead the European Union and they have been quite keen to keep the UK in the EU, they have also made it clear that this goal is not pursued at all costs- particularly not at a cost that weakens the concept of European integration (Oliver, Williams 2016).

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Brexit could also change the relations between the European Union and the United States. Many Americans believe that having one of United States’ closest allies in the EU aligns it more closely with U.S. foreign policy aspirations and the U.S. saw the UK as a bridge between themselves and continental Europe (Grant 2016). UK has helped move the European Union toward shared U.S. foreign policy aims before, for example as the Atlantic Council’s Frances Burwell points to the EU setting sanctions on Iran for its nuclear program and on Russia for Moscow’s takeover of Crimea. Although it is argued that Brexit would likely have a little impact on the EU-US relations since U.S. and UK would still be both members of NATO.  While historically Britain has been the leader of the Antlanticism, support for a close relationship between Western Europe and the U.S., in Europe, there is no reason why another big EU member state could not play this part. Indeed, the United States has already started to look to other states, particularly Germany for an ally, and France for military leadership in Europe (Oliver, Williams 2016).

The loss of European Union’s key member states with major strategic, economic, diplomatic and military capabilities will be a serious setback to the EU’s position and reputation, alongside with its international influential powers. Brexit is a momentous event in the history of EU, and because this is situation is unprecedented in Europe, the impacts are uncertain. Nevertheless, the consequences will most likely be substantial and prolonged in the EU’s policy and foreign policy. Firstly, Brexit will weaken the global role of the European Union signifantly. EU is no longer sufficiently attractive if even one of its own members do not believe in the norms and values set out by the model of international cooperation that is the European Union. This puts the EU’s symbolic meaning into question- is the EU still a model for the future of international cooperation? From here could the unravelling of the EU begin. Brexit emboldens anti-immigration and Eurosceptic forces across Europe. The reputation of EU has already decreased after the poor handling of the Eurozone and immigration crises. Immigration issues were the key to the UK’s referendum and has got many other member states concerned as well. There is a rising mistrust in the Union and although referendums on the EU membership in other member states is unlikely, the EU should be concerned with the rising populist and Eurosceptic forces. Even though referendums are not very likely, some member states could at least seek some reconfiguration of the conditions and terms with the European Union. Naturally the EU would want to prevent any Brexit Domino effects and therefore make the conditions of leaving possibly difficult for the UK, not willing to make many concessions. The Brexit negotiations will be long and complex.

As a result of Brexit, the EU might want to push for more integration among the member states, to show ‘unity’, led by Germany and France. But this attempt could a counter reaction and lead to even more Eurosceptisim in Europe.

Brexit will also change the balance of power between the member states. This could go in many possible directions but it is very plausible that the Brexit will strengthen the position of Germany, or rather- further reassure Germany’s position, Germany has already determined the EU’s response on past issues. Germany’s dominant position could have many smaller states worried, since until now the UK has served as a critical counterweight to Germany.


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