Moving Past the Wake-Up Call of Brexit to Start Considering Answers

In June 2016 the electorate of the United Kingdom voted to leave the EU. The strategy of the UK government towards the fallout has provided rich source material for political junkies: but is it sometimes overlooked that this decision has created two distinct futures, that for Britain and that for the remaining members of the EU.

Panellists, including diplomats and prominent commentators on European Affairs, explored the future of the EU at the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna on March 3 at a discussion entitled “Brexit as an Opportunity for Reforms?”

The oft-mentioned call for institutional reform immediately dominated the discussion. Paul Schmidt, secretary general of the Austrian Society for European Politics (ÖGfE), stated that the public needs to be wary of the fact that institutional reform in a bureaucratic sense is associated with the European elite, rather than the average European citizen. This citizen is more concerned with institutional reforms which reflect inclusiveness.

Jacopo Barbati, Vice President of the Young European Federalists, stressed that such efforts to promote inclusiveness must deliver otherwise they will serve to fuel existing Euroscepticsim. Barbati, calls for a federalist model based on concrete demands including a European Parliament with legislative power. Schmidt felt the federalist model is a promising idea but emphasised that governmental figures from the Member States “need to be convinced to become active players in European integration,” before it can be achieved.

The second standout topic emerging was cohesion across the remaining Member States, and whether or not further European integration should be aspired towards.  Schmidt argued that divergence among Member States with regards to migration and economic asymmetry are obvious but nobody wants to take pragmatic initiative: “We are strong on speeches and weak on substance,” he said.

Gregor Schusterschitz, the Austrian ambassador to Luxembourg, who is also currently working Austrian delegate at the Brexit negotiations, alluded to a hopeful, strong sense of cohesion on display during these negotiations, among remaining EU Member States. “This solidarity is very strong,” Schusterschitz said. “Cracks will widen but still there is a clear sense of belonging to each other and of working together.”

Melanie Sully, Head of Go-Governance argued this sense of cohesion is overstated and that there is very little consensus among the European elite regarding the next steps to be taken. She said the only way to move forward might be to abandon this ideal of cohesion, suggesting a multi-speed approach might bear more fruit in the short-term. “Just maybe, perhaps the UK was never really at home in the EU,” she said. “It’s not a criticism. It’s just that it’s not what people wanted.”

The Brexit decision will have untold ramifications in the long-term but the panel members were asked what they would like to see from the EU in the short-term. Sully feels a clear vision needs to be laid down by European leaders soon. Schmidt suggested this may materialise if the German coalition negotiations are finalised and an endorsement of Macron’s Sorbonne speech takes place.

Schusterschitz argued that broadly speaking claims that the EU is dysfunctioning are exaggerated: he points to the EU’s dynamic flexibility in responding to Brexit as proof. Nevertheless he feels inter-institutional communication in Brussels could use some improvements. Barbati believes progress needs to be made with intergovernmental disputes in key areas such as foreign policy.

The panel members were finally asked if the departure of the UK could in fact lead to greater progress in some areas. Sully joked that the EU may become more efficient now that it has lost its “scapegoat.” Schusterschitz said it was hard to gauge for many issues such as defense and foreign policy but that Brexit could indeed be conducive to human rights legislation and the rule of law. The discussion proved that while Brexit has led to both opportunities and challenges, new interesting ideas and proposal are circulating in response. Schmidt hammered home that the time to deliver on them is now:  “These are opportunities we have to seize.”

Gregor Schusterschitz Austrian Ambassador to Luxembourg and Austrian delegate at the Brexit negotiations

Paul Schmidt Secretary General of the Austrian Society for European Politics (ÖGfE)

Melanie Sully Head of Go Governance

Jacopo Barbati Vice President of the Young European Federalists

Moderation: Elisabeth Springler Professor at the University of Applied Sciences BFI Vienna