The people of the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union marks one of the most defining moments in EU history and is the first act of European disintegration since the European Coal and Steel Community was established in 1951.
‘Brexit’ not only raises questions for the future of the UK, but it also raises questions for the future of the EU and European integration. In the immediate aftermath of the referendum result, the EU reacted with a show of unity. However, this demonstration of solidarity was short lived and significant divides regarding visions for the future of the EU post-Brexit quickly surfaced. Calls by some Member States, notably France, and the European Commission to push forward with economic and political integration have been countered by German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU Party and other centre-right governments, who advocate a cautious approach to further integration in order to prevent further disintegration.
In an effort to establish a common approach and vision for the future of the European project, an informal meeting[i] of the 27 Heads of Government has been convened for 16 September 2016 in Bratislava without the UK prime minister.
Since the result of the UK Referendum, public disenchantment with the EU has not only played a major part in political dialogue, but has also been widely debated by media outlets across the continent. EU leaders worry about the political “contagion” factor of Brexit, and that the success of the Leave Campaign in the UK referendum could strengthen the various anti-EU movements at national level across the Union.
With major elections scheduled to take place next year in Germany and France, political commentators and politicians alike are underlining the importance of explaining the benefits of EU citizenship to its citizens. As the German Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, recently wrote: “The European Union of today has lost its attraction for many. We cannot afford to be indifferent to this development[ii]”.
Euroscepticism beyond the UK
Understanding public sentiment towards the EU will play a central role in determining the Union’s future in the aftermath of Brexit. A poll undertaken by Pew Research[iii] two weeks before the UK Referendum allows us an insight into people’s attitudes towards the EU across the continent. The survey includes countries that account for 80% of the EU’s population – Ireland was not included[iv]. The key finding is that overall 47% of respondents have an unfavorable view of the EU, with 51% supporting the Union. While still in positive territory, it is worth noting that just under a decade ago support for the EU was considerably higher (see graph 1.3). Interestingly, the results of the poll illustrate that much of the dissatisfaction with the EU among Europeans can be attributed to the EU’s handling of the economic and refugee crises.
1.1 Support for EU’s handling of the refugee crisis.
1.2 Support for the EU’s handling of the economy
The results of the study also serve to highlight contrasts between Member States. The EU’s strongest supporters among the countries polled are the Poles (72%). At the other end of the spectrum, the French (36%) and the Greeks (27%) view the institutions least favourably. While the lack of support in Greece is thought to be overwhelmingly attributed to the EU’s handling of the financial crisis, what is perhaps most surprising is the level of negativity towards the EU in France – a founding member and arguably the staunchest supporter of European integration. This figure is particularly important considering likely French Presidential candidate Marine Le Pen has pledged to hold a referendum on France’s membership of the Union if elected next year[v]. Support has also dropped considerably and consistently in large Member States such as Spain (by 16 points), Germany (by 8 points), Italy (by 6 points), and the United Kingdom (by 7 points). Respondents in France and Greece demonstrated higher levels of negativity towards the EU than those in the UK.
1.3 EU favourability from 2004-2016
1.4 Support for EU in Spring 2016
“More Europe” or “Less Europe”?
If we take into account the results of the study, how does the EU move forward after ‘Brexit’?
Since the UK referendum, some members of the European political community, including the President of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Group (ALDE) in the European Parliament, Guy Verhofstadt, have pushed for more integration at EU level as a means of reinvigorating the European project[vi]. The governments of France and Belgium for the most part support this view; however there appears to be little enthusiasm elsewhere for further EU integration, particularly on a political level. In addition, the Pew study indicates that there is little public appetite for transferring more power to the EU Institutions overall. Hungarian Secretary of State for EU Affairs, Takács Szabolcs, reaffirmed this view when he called for a strengthening of the role of national parliaments in EU decision-making while addressing members of the IIEA on 14 July.
In essence, this fundamental disagreement over “more Europe” or “less Europe” is longstanding, but it appears to have been exacerbated by the UK referendum and the potential political consequences a Brexit may have on the rest of the Union. It has also exposed a “fault line” between the centre-left and centre-right European political factions and their diverging views on the direction the EU should take[vii].
A paper co-authored by German Foreign Minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier and French Foreign Minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault – both of whom are Social Democrats – perhaps best illustrates this divide. The paper, entitled A Strong Europe in a World of Uncertainties, lays out a joint view of the future of the EU in the areas of security, migration, and economic and monetary union. It also advocates for further steps towards political union: “we will therefore move further towards political union in Europe and invite other Europeans to join us in this endeavour”[viii]. In contrast, prominent political figures on the centre-right have been erring on the side of caution with regard to further political and economic integration. German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, in an interview with the Welt am Sonntag paper, said that while he supported the principal of further integration, this is not the time for “grand visions”: “at a time of growing demagoguery and deep euroscepticism, Europe cannot just carry on as before”[ix].
Conclusion –next steps
In the coming months, more dialogue between both European leaders and the heads of the EU Institutions will take place. A unified approach with regard to both the handling of the withdrawal of one of its largest members as well as the Union’s future will need to be adopted. Major challenges, such as the EU’s future approach to the refugee crisis as well as economic governance, will also need to handled with a certain degree of political sensitivity, as these issues played a significant role in the most recent drop in support for the EU as demonstrated. A concerted effort will be required to explain to citizens the benefits of EU membership, and a compromise approach accommodating concerns, including the speed that further integration can reasonably move, will need to be struck.
The Summit of the EU 27 in Bratislava on 16 September will mark the first serious exchange of views on the future of the European project at a time when nationalist sentimentality, coupled with the fear of political contagion after Brexit, is thought to be overshadowing common European action[x]. It also marks the first stepping-stone towards a Union of 27 Member States.
[i] Remarks by President Donald Tusk after the informal meeting of 27 EU heads of state or government. June 2016. Available at: http://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/press/press-releases/2016/06/29-tusk-remarks-informal-meeting-27/
[ii]“Defend Europe by Making it Better”. July 2016. Available at:
[iii] Euroskepticism Beyond Brexit – Significant opposition in key countries to an ever closer EU. June 2016. Available at: http://www.pewglobal.org/2016/06/07/euroskepticism-beyond-brexit/
[iv] Countries included in the survey: Greece, Sweden, Italy, Spain, Hungary, Poland, UK, France, Germany, Netherlands
[v] The future of the Europe Union post Brexit. July 2016. Available at: http://addeurope.org/the-future-of-the-european-union-post-brexit/1889
[vi] Only More Europe Can Beat Europe’s Nationalists. July 2016. Available at: https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/post-brexit-eu-structural-reforms-by-guy-verhofstadt-2016-07
[vii] Brexit exposed left-right faultline on future of Europe. July 2016. Available at: http://www.euractiv.com/section/future-eu/news/brexit-exposed-left-right-faultline-on-future-of-europe/
[ix] Post-Brexit EU must focus on issues, not visions: Schaeuble. July 2016. Available at: http://en.rfi.fr/wire/20160703-post-brexit-eu-must-focus-issues-not-visions-schaeuble
[x] Bratislava to host first summit on EU’s future. June 2016. Available at: http://addeurope.org/the-future-of-the-european-union-post-brexit/1889