With voter turnout at 72 percent in the British EU referendum, 53.2 percent of voters confirmed last week that they wished to leave the European Union, with 46.8 percent voting to remain.
The political, economic, and legal fallout has been swift. The British Prime Minister has resigned, the pound has dropped drastically in value, the Scottish government is preparing a second secession referendum based off the position articulated by First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon that it is “democratically unacceptable” that Scotland will be taken out of the EU against its will.
There is wall-to-wall coverage in the UK media portending substantial economic decline, deep political uncertainty, and the potential for the disintegration of the United Kingdom. All of this fallout may well address gloomy UK realities. However, I remain decidedly more optimistic on the future of the European Union as an idea and an enterprise.
We should bear in mind that the core relationship that created and sustains the EU is the Franco-German bond. At the Elysée Treaty’s 40th anniversary, Alain Juppé characterized France and Germany as the “privileged guardians of the European cohesion.” Despite Brexit, and ultimately maybe because of Brexit, this core relationship remains strong and committed to the fundamental ideals that created the European Economic Community through the Treaty of Rome in 1957. The United Kingdom was a late arrival and always a reluctant partner, constantly seeking carve-outs and exceptions. The core of the EU, while needing reform and renewal, has the capacity and the common interest to survive and thrive.
The United Kingdom, on the other hand, faces internal splintering, division, and a markedly more intolerant future. Moreover, the internal constitutional ramifications that follow from referenda in Scotland and a border poll in Northern Ireland may spell the end of empire for the United Kingdom.
So Brexit may not be the worst thing after all for Europe, for Scotland, or for Northern Ireland. It will require re-stitching the fabric of these treaties and resettling the political order to account for the loss of a significant state, but it is also an opportunity to renew, re-imagine, address the democracy and proximity defects that Brexit has exposed, and to do better. The loser in all of this may not be the EU, but rather a diminished and inward looking Britain.