PARIS – It’s finally here. On January 1st, after the end of the Brexit transition period, Great Britain will no longer be part of the internal market and the customs union of the European Union. The departure is ordered thanks to a last minute deal with more than 1,200 pages, but it is still painful for both sides. A great loss is made.
The loss to the European Union of one of its largest member states, a large economy, a robust military and the, albeit stalled, tradition of British liberalism at a time when Hungary and Poland have become nationalists.
Loss of diplomatic strength for Britain in a world of renewed rivalry between great powers; of some future economic growth; Clarity on European access for its large financial services industry; and countless opportunities to study, live, work and dream across the continent.
The national call for “take back control,” which sparked the Brexit vote in an outbreak of anti-immigrant fervor and random complaints, withered in four and a half years of painful negotiations in which a minnow competed against a mammoth. Attitude met reality. The UK economy is less than a fifth the size of the bloc. President Trump is leaving office, and with him there is hope that the British-American trade deal will be settled quickly.
“Brexit is an act of mutual weakening,” Michel Barnier, the European Union’s chief negotiator, told the French daily Le Figaro.
However, the weakening is uneven. Britain is closer to the break. The possibility has increased that Scotland and Northern Ireland will choose to leave the UK and otherwise re-join the European Union. In contrast, the bloc was, in some ways, boosted by the trauma of Brexit. It has overcome longstanding obstacles, abandoned its ambitions and rekindled the Franco-German engine of closer union.
“Brexit is not good news for anyone, but it has undoubtedly helped re-solidify Europe, which has demonstrated its unity during the negotiations,” French Foreign Ministry Secretary General François Delattre said in an email.
The European Union, driven by Brexit, facing the coronavirus pandemic and facing the hostility of Mr Trump, has done things previously unimaginable. It has taken steps in a quasi federal direction that Britain has always opposed.
Germany gave up a stubborn austerity policy. The federalization of European debts, which had long been taboo for the Germans, became possible. The European Union can now borrow like a government – a step towards state power and a means of funding the $ 918 billion pandemic recovery fund that a UK presence would likely have blocked.
“Brexit made Angela Merkel ready to give up sacred positions,” said Karl Kaiser, former chairman of the German Council for Foreign Relations. “There has been a debate about enlarging or deepening the European Union for a long time. Well it deepened. “
Part of this process has been to rethink the role of Europe. French President Emmanuel Macron today speaks often of the need for “strategic autonomy”. At the center of this idea is the belief that, in the face of Russia, China and the United States whose unreliability has become evident, Europe must develop its military arm to support independent politics. European soft power only goes so far.
“Who would have said three years ago that Europe would so quickly cling to a budget relaunch through shared debt and strategic military and technological autonomy?” Mr Macron told the French weekly L’Express in December. “This is important because France’s fate lies in a sovereign Europe.” He alluded to an autonomous Europe operating “alongside America and China”, a telling phrase.
Military autonomy is far away, probably a pipe dream. The ties of the Central and Eastern European states to NATO and thus to the United States as a European power are strong. Germany recognizes the need for an adjusted transatlantic bond, but does not question the bond itself. In the end, neither did France.
Nonetheless, the European Union, through its European Defense Fund, agreed in 2020 to invest more than US $ 10 billion in jointly developed military equipment, technology and greater mobility. Not much and less than planned, but enough to indicate a new European state of mind. When France and Germany were planning a “euro drone”, something changed.
This change is almost certain to create tension between the European Union and the new administration of President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr., who, as one official put it, “is part of the Euro-American decor”.
Mr. Biden, who has been a regular at the Munich Security Conference for decades, trains and experiences a man with a traditional view of the Alliance: the United States leads, allies agree. But the world has changed. The ramifications of the Trump years and an America AWOL during the global crisis caused by the pandemic cannot be waved off.
“You can only lose trust once,” said Nicole Bacharan, a French political analyst. “When it’s gone, it’s gone. We learned that an American president can easily undo things. “
Most European governments are happy to see Mr Trump leave. They believe American decency has returned in Mr. Biden. However, they do not necessarily equate their relief with a long honeymoon, even if the new president and Antony J. Blinken, his candidate for foreign affairs, are aware that times have changed and that solving big problems is about giving and Giving Requires – Take the multilateralism that Mr. Trump has avoided.
In terms of China policy, Iran, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the climate problems, a Europe girdled in the experience of an American president who despises NATO and pampers Russia will be more assertive. France and Germany have already worked together on an extensive dossier covering all major international issues and handing it over to officials of the future Biden government.
Of course, the battered European Union that produced Brexit and growing nationalism has not gone away. A union that is perceived as too bureaucratic and insufficiently democratic. The divisions that plague a now 27-strong unit, with 19 of these countries sharing a currency but none sharing a government, will not go away.
Yet the European Union has been given a new sense of value. Brexit looks unique. The European nations have seen at close quarters that a divorce is always a defeat – and so is a negotiation that ends in new obstacles.
Britain’s decision to leave the country was the epitome of its era. An act that is inspired by an imaginary past, carried by an imaginary future, charged by social media and made possible by the withered hold of truth. It was a failure of the “United States of Europe” dream – on the continent, that British and American troops died to get rid of the Nazis – first articulated by Winston Churchill in 1946 when he spoke of a free Europe , the “simple” offered joys and hopes that make life worth living. “
Everyone in Europe and the UK has lost something. But as Jean Monnet, one of the founding fathers of the future European Union, said: “Europe makes itself in crisis.”