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How the Brexit vision of UK freedom risks turning sour

“All changed, changed utterly,” wrote the celebrated Irish poet W.B. Yeats of the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin, adding “a terrible beauty is born!” A century later, he might well have been writing about the result of Britain’s referendum on EU membership.

Radical change has been the dream of the UK’s triumphant Brexiteers, but what, beautiful or not, will be born? An absence of clarity about the impact of Brexit on the UK, the rest of Europe, and worldwide will last for a decade at least. The notion that Britain can neatly cut the links binding it to continental Europe will quickly prove absurd, as will the idea that the surgery will be painless and only local.

To return to that ‘terrible beauty’; the referendum result suggests that a 52% majority of British voters believe they have freed themselves of the cumbersome diktats of the EU ‘superstate’, and that the UK will be able to rediscover its former glory. They see the British lion again standing rampant at the centre of an international trading system wider than Europe, with the strength to impose some benign new form of Pax Britannica whenever troubles threaten.

The picture is beguiling but misleading. It is impossible to predict how the 27 remaining EU member states will react, but right now it seems likely that this week’s scheduled meeting of the European Council grouping national leaders will be a subdued affair.

Once the dampening effects of shock wear off, though, the pain will come flooding in. This summer will see the beginning of a tumultuous political crisis that will probably set many EU member states against one another, and will certainly reverberate around the world.

It is too soon even to guess at the immediate consequences of the vote for Brexit. The pound sterling will tumble, stocks and shares will slide and the global financial system will be severely shaken. But what goes down can also come back up, so the more important question is the longer term political outlook for the EU and for the 60-year process of European integration.

The more important question is the longer term political outlook for the EU and for the 60-year process of European integration.

Will Britain’s exit trigger a wave of copycat pressures across the Union, as many fear? The European Union’s global credibility is going to suffer, and the further risk is that voters in other European countries will demand special treatment that could, unless satisfied, prompt fresh demands to leave the EU.

The arguments raging so fiercely in recent months inside the UK have been followed closely elsewhere, not least by Europe’s eurosceptic populists. The established centre-right and centre-left mainstream parties that in effect govern the EU’s choices and direction know that their reactions to the Brexit decision must avoid strengthening their hand.

That leaves the EU and its member governments with a difficult balancing act. They must avoid panicking and permitting the UK’s withdrawal negotiations to exacerbate euroscepticism elsewhere. And they must at the same time create a more positive climate so as to move the European project forward.

A first step would be to stop pretending that the EU’s lack of accountability is no problem. Eurosceptics are not the only ones to question the secrecy surrounding Council of Ministers’ meetings that produce no public record of who said what, along with the unelected character of the European Commission.

No one can predict the sort of more open, democratic, and transparent EU decision-making structure that might emerge from a re-think. The EU and the national leaders who in truth are responsible for its policies would, however, be very unwise to ignore the pressures for reform. Not the sort of narrow, self-serving ‘reforms’ that Britain’s prime minister David Cameron attempted to secure earlier this year, but imaginative improvements that could restore the EU’s credibility and popularity.

Featured image credit: Brexit by Sam. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.

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