If Britain goes ahead and leaves the European Union in March next year as a consequence of the referendum held in June 2016, the positives of such a move would be greater for the EU than for the UK.
The UK has always opposed the EU’s “ever closer union” principle, despite the fact that it was clearly stated, first in the 1957 Treaty of Rome that founded the EU, and then in the document that British government representatives signed when the country joined the EU in 1972.
The accession Treaty that Britain signed in 1972 when it became an EU member says that the signatories are “determined in the spirit of those Treaties to construct an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe on the foundations already laid.”
For a while, particularly during the eurozone debt crisis, “ever closer union” looked like a really bad idea. Greece sank in economic depression under the weight of its debt, and many blamed the single currency for it. Italy’s economy slowed, and again the single currency was blamed. The same for Spain, Ireland, Portugal.
But it looks like the “closer union” idea has received new impetus from the Brexit vote of June 23, 2016. Somehow, the UK’s shocking vote in favour of leaving the EU galvanised public opinion in the rest of the bloc, and the EU’s popularity has increased since then.
For the EU, the departure of one of its biggest, richest and most reluctant members will undoubtedly be a financial hit. But, if indeed Brexit does take place, it will give allow the EU to go ahead with its plans for closer integration.
These plans have been given some breathing room by the European Central Bank’s extraordinary asset purchases and a globally synchronised growth spurt, but they must advance soon. If they do not, the eurozone and the EU are doomed.
It is well known that the euro is an artificial and incomplete project. Without a common fiscal policy and a solid deposit insurance scheme for banks, it is unlikely to work. To its credit, the ECB under Mario Draghi has done “whatever it takes” to save the euro, as he promised six years ago.
But the momentum must not be wasted. Draghi’s mandate ends next year, and it is crucial that his successor does not take an unnecessarily rigid view of how the ECB should conduct monetary policy.
At the same time, European politicians must take advantage of the people’s refreshed attachment to the ever closer union and take steps to strengthen the EU.
In the words of ECB Executive Board member Benoît Cœuré, Europeans “won’t be able to foster cooperation on security and defence, or to speak with one voice on international affairs, or to complete the Single Market if we repeatedly have to tackle economic crises which are largely of our own making.”
Brexit offers the rest of the EU a chance to define its priorities and follow them. If it wants to survive, it will take it.