‘Let’s Get Brexit Done!’ Boris Johnson’s slogan for his latest campaigning became reality with the end of January. Indeed, it is done, at least when one understands Brexit as nothing else but the United Kingdom leaving the European Union. Because this is essentially what happened. Most urging questions, including the border issue between EU member state Ireland and UK member Northern Ireland, trade relations, the status of EU citizens living in Great Britain, and the like, remain unresolved regarding the long term. Hence, there is still plenty of political work to be done, both in Brussels and London.
It is therefore fallacious to jump to overly optimistic conclusions which appear to be widespread in both media and politics. While some celebrate the reincarnation of self-determination, others welcome getting rid of an awkward negotiating partner. Still others are just happy not to be bothered any more by the never-ending story of extending withdrawal talks again and again.
Yet, sorry to say, all these perceptions fall short. This is best shown by the perhaps most prevalent myth surrounding Brexit: That the EU now finally is a real union again. Proponents of this thesis have a fair point when arguing that the entire storyline of Brexit so far comes closer to a horror movie than a love flick. The back and forth of the negotiations between London and Brussels just as lockdowns and dead ends in British politics indeed sent a strong signal to the 27 remaining EU members. Leaving the often-disliked union in those days is as unattempting as never before. As David ‘Oops-a-Daisy-I-accidently-made-my-country-leave-the-EU’ Cameron and Theresa ‘Dancing-Queen-aka-Brexit-means-Brexit’ May showed strikingly: Such an agenda easily turns into a political suicide mission.
What tends to be forgotten, however, is the fact that the voter generally is oblivious. In other words: Having a strong community spirit now does not equal a guarantee for standing strong forever and ever. Besides, whether the sense of community actually is as alive and kicking as assumed should be questioned. The so-called ‘Friends of Cohesion’ recently convened in Portugal to agree on their post-Brexit strategy. Needless to say, this circle of ‘friends’ does not incorporate all 27 EU states. With numerous more or less formal sub groupings within the EU, from the Eurogroup to PESCO to Visegrád, when the chips are down, every member state will look for the alliance that is most promising to its very national advantage.
With the pressing schedule to get Brexit really done until the end of the year – let us leave aside the quite likely event of a prolongation for a second – the EU would be wise to avoid falling into pieces even more (ironically, the decision makers at the River Thames faces the same risk: think Scotland). Instead, Brussels would be better off staying strong together, overcoming dissents quickly, and, ultimately, speaking with one voice internationally.
Else, the EU may rest in pieces.