Don't tell the British the consequences of Brexit (now)
If the British leave the EU after their referendum on 23 June, it will no longer be business as usual. EU leaders have signalled that if European integration is rejected, the British cannot count on continued smooth economic cooperation with the EU.
The fact that Member States are distanced if they do not cooperate with ongoing European integration was evident at the end of last year after the Danish referendum in which voters rejected increased police cooperation in Europol. Neither Europol nor the EU have anything to gain from this tough European stance, of course. Denmark was one of the most constructive partners in Europol. The result of the Danish referendum was a ‘no’ to supranational police cooperation. The Danes are cooperative and thorough when it comes to cooperating with Europol, but they do not want to be subsumed in it. When Denmark’s Premier Rasmussen had to explain the ‘no’ in Brussels last December, he was told that further cooperation with Europol would now be difficult for Denmark. Here you see the great European paradox: if a country rejects the ideal of European integration, it cannot count on European cooperation. European integration takes precedence over European cooperation. Only criminals benefit from the EU’s tough stance.
It would be equally unfavourable if the EU erected trade barriers after a Brexit. The polls show the ‘Remain’ and ‘Leave’ sides neck and neck. One of the arguments of the Remain camp is that the EU and other trade blocs will punish the United Kingdom with trade barriers. This message was underlined last week in London by Barack Obama with his ‘you’ll go to the back of the queue for trade deals’, while former Commission President José Manuel Barroso characterised the mood among Member States with the words ‘your negotiations with the EU will be long and complex’.
These threats may be more than just a means of pressuring the British to stay on the straight and narrow. In France, 40% of people are in favour of Brexit and only 27% believe it would have negative consequences. Perhaps French aircraft manufacturers would also like the idea of import duties on Airbus wings. European negotiators have run out of patience with the British and their opt-outs. Not everyone is as fearful of Brexit as the Dutch. The principal fear is of course of a domino effect in the EU. Member States must not be able to think you can leave the EU and hope for open borders.
It is also irritating for the EU in a practical sense if members deviate from supranational European integration. It will be complex for the EU, and for the European Commission, if bilateral deals have to be concluded all the time. As well as all the complex negotiations with individual countries such as Switzerland and the micro-bloc of the European Economic Area (Norway, Liechtenstein and Iceland), a major problem with this type of agreement is that countries feel less compelled to comply with them to the letter. The traditional pattern of European integration offers more legal certainty than individual trade agreements.
After the Danish exit from Europol, it is expected that all sides will seek renewed cooperation after a certain time. But leniency after a Brexit is difficult to imagine. It is nevertheless in the interest of the Netherlands to prevent the British, or the Danes, being punished for their vain quest for sovereignty.
First, obstacles to economic or judicial cooperation are bad for the EU and the Netherlands. The departure of the Danes means Europol has lost a major player, while the United Kingdom accounts for just under 10% of our imports and exports. For the Netherlands, free trade and security are the key benefits of European cooperation.
Second, the United Kingdom and Denmark are not members of the euro area. The distance they seek from the EU is different from, for example, Marine Le Pen’s wish to hold a similar ‘in-out’ referendum in France.
Third, the argument that it is so difficult to conclude separate agreements with surrounding countries cuts no ice. There are already plenty of trade and other agreements and a few more would pose no problem.
Finally, it must not be the case that the British are punished because Member States are frightened of existential EU debates in their ranks. Fear of democratic processes must not be a reason to withhold cooperation from the United Kingdom or Denmark.
It is understandable that Western leaders will give the British a hard time about a possible exit until 23 June. But after 23 June let us separate the key issues from secondary concerns. European cooperation is about free trade and other forms of cooperation. Trade barriers or other obstacles have no place on this continent. But don’t tell the British that just yet…
A shorter version of this opinion appeared at NRC.nl on 11 May 2016.