Brexit could spark an EU renaissance if elites recognise their many failings

John Hulsman
Security On High Alert Ahead Of EU Enlargement Ceremony
Things just can't go on as they are in Brussels (Source: Getty)

One of the many things I do for my political risk firm is design and play war games for my clients – strategic, empirically-based simulations of the possible geostrategic futures out there, and how businesses can use this creative tool to survive and thrive in our present world, laden as it is with political risk.

Some of my favourite outcomes these war games have arrived at are the strategic outliers, those with a quite limited real world chance of happening, but outcomes that are still possible and entirely depart from our perceptions of what is likely to happen next.

I present this outlier to you as it goes so against the grain of what is expected to happen next in Europe following a Brexit vote: instead of utter implosion, European elites will actually learn from this historic setback and emerge over time in better strategic shape because of the vote. What follows is possible, if hardly likely.

Read more: Vote for Brexit before the inevitable Eurozone meltdown

Following a Brexit vote, stunned European elites plot to consider their next moves forward. Rather than haughtily dismissing the vote as merely the final logical expression of a Britain that never really was committed to the EU club in the first place, shell-shocked elites gather to take real stock of what has gone so politically wrong with what continentals ominously call “The Project”.

Their first takeaway mirrors what European Council president Donald Tusk has been presciently saying to anyone who will listen to him at the moment: the European elites’ dream of ever-closer union, of a political project that moves in only one direction (always toward more centralisation), and largely at one speed, simply doesn’t fit a continent characterised by such political and cultural heterogeneity.

Rather than ignoring recent polls highlighting their electorates’ weary dislike of Brussels, European elites instead choose to make a virtue of what has become with Brexit a political necessity: Europe must make its institutions more flexible, with what it means to be a member changing depending on what is being discussed.

Powers, in proper Jeffersonian fashion, must be devolved to the lowest and most responsive political level available, with the EU only having oversight and sway over truly supranational European issues. By adopting this radical, new agenda, Brussels would at one stroke have taken on its problems with democratic legitimacy, and made it clear to its disenchanted people that it was actually responsive to their concerns.

Read more: Brexonomics: The five most insidious anti-EU myths debunked

Rather than ignoring Britain’s liberalising agenda now that it had walked through the door, instead a determined Germany (bolstered by the surprisingly liberalised French government of Prime Minister Valls and economy minister Macron) would push through in quick succession the completion of the Single Market, making a heretofore sclerotic Europe able to finally fight its own corner in global economic relations. European elites would at last accept that, without a return to the higher rates of economic growth such liberalisation would bring, their cherished way of life is at an end. Again, by getting out in front of this proactively, Europe would sweep away decades of contempt for its feeble efforts to compete in the global economy.

Finally, with the departure of Britain, there could be some areas where further centralisation is now possible, catnip for the average Brussels bureaucrat. The most likely area is bolstering the common defence project (led by France), which would reassure a nervous continent that an increasingly dominant Germany is not quite calling all the shots. Also, far greater intelligence cooperation, strongly desired by many in Europe in the aftermath of the Brussels and Paris attacks, can now far more easily move forward, with Britain’s conflicting intelligence ties to the US no longer posing a problem.

Read more: Five Eyes: Brexit will enhance – not hurt – Britain's security

Democratically more accountable, economically nimbler, and possessing at last what amounts to a common army, Europe would have seized the historic failure symbolised by Brexit, using the crisis to actually change and adapt to the modern multipolar world. All it takes for this alternative future to come to pass is for Europe’s leaders to have the courage to actually look at the world as it is, and then strive to boldly make it better.

Don’t hold your breath as, other than the brave Tusk, most of Europe’s elite seems incapable of actually making sense of why their project is failing. But while unlikely, nothing is preordained, the empirical evidence being there for all to see that things in Europe simply cannot go on as they are.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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