PARIS — While Brexit uncertainty continues with "last-chance summit" after "last-chance summit," the hard questions are becoming more difficult to avoid with each passing day. Are we moving towards a brutal divorce? Or a compromise? Will the Irish question turn everything upside down? Can a second referendum turn the tide? All these questions refer to the British political machine, on which all bets are off.
Still, there is one conclusion that can already be drawn from this extraordinary episode in the history of the European Union: it will have produced, on the continent, the opposite effect to what Brexiters had predicted. Rather than sparking a process of European disintegration, Brexit has triggered a reflex of unity among the 27 member states.
This cohesion has even surprised the European Union's most passionate defenders, occurring while the EU suffers deep wounds on many other fronts.
Looking at the issues broadly, East and West are torn apart over the question of values and the rule of law. The North and the South are confronting each other on the budgetary rules of the eurozone, as shown by the standoff between Brussels and Rome, and as demonstrated in recent years by the battle around Greece. The migration issue exacerbates discord and even pits nationalists against each other, despite the selfies they may take together. Meanwhile, Paris and Berlin have failed to form a coherent team in this maelstrom.
In Brussels and in European capitals, it became quickly apparent that Britain was shooting itself in the foot because of their deep-seated denial.
All this comes at a critical time when Europeans are preparing for the mother of all battles: the negotiation of their future multi-year budget. This is enough for all sides to try to tear each other apart at once.
The EU should be grateful for its chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, and his team in charge of the Brexit talks. From the very beginning, this great apostle of the European cause made clear the bloc's value both inside and outside, and the fact that leaving came with a price.
What was interpreted in London as a punitive logic was nothing more than institutional evidence. It's this evidence — which former French President François Hollande immediately identified the day after the referendum, quickly seconded by Angela Merkel — that has constituted the real cement of Brexit: The EU, despite all its shortcomings and even its cost for the most prosperous member states, is a club whose membership card is precious and must not be wasted.
Suddenly, it became clear to Europeans that what divided them had to be pushed aside. For instance, the EU's Stability and Growth Pact, which some criticize for its permissiveness while others find too strict, is the price to pay if you want to participate in the eurozone. The EU's single market multiplies the power of companies and provides a form of protection against the violent winds of currency speculation.
European Union flags fly in front of the Berlaymont Building — Photo: Thijs ter Harr
What about the recurrent attempts by the European Commission and France to limit fiscal dumping? Countries such as Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Ireland or Belgium have painfully had to resolve to deal with it, because only then can they continue to enjoy access to a club whose cumulative GDP remains one of the highest in the world. And what about the alleged institutional interference denounced by Poland or Hungary? At this stage, they haven't led to a strategy of leaving the EU, as accession guarantees benefits, if only in terms of funding and employment.
London, which claims a desire to regain its commercial and economic autonomy, is finding out that it is impossible to achieve this without penalizing its growth. The United Kingdom must admit that the most valuable asset in the eyes of the 27 remaining member states isn't the country of Shakespeare and Churchill, but the Single Market. And that paying for access is the least we can do, as the Norwegians or Icelanders, which aren't part of the EU, know very well. With all due respect to defenders of national sovereignty of both sides of the political spectrum, the cost of the Union is very reasonable in relation to the added value it offers.
Therefore, whatever the fate of the United Kingdom and its potential ability to bounce back, Brexit will have led to the exact opposite of its defenders' goal. Not only will it have enhanced the stature of the European Union, but also severely damaged the UK's image among its trading partners. After a referendum campaign partially won on lies, the whole negotiation will have been a dialogue of the deaf with a British political class that is struggling to face the EU. In Brussels and in European capitals, it became quickly apparent that Britain was shooting itself in the foot because of their deep-seated denial.
None of this alters the extreme difficulty of the challenges facing the EU. But this whole experience will have made it possible to finally and firmly establish in European minds this painful but salutary certainty: no European country, regardless of how powerful and proud it may be, can be heard very well when it decides to play solo.