'Brexit has led to renewed trust in European cooperation'
Brexit has been a kind of shock therapy for the EU and has eventually led to more appreciation for European cooperation. That is what Professor Luuk van Middelaar claimed on 30 November at the conference ‘Brexit and the future of the European Union’ which marked the 60th anniversary of the Europa Institute at Leiden Law School.
In his lecture, Van Middelaar took the audience back to 24 June 2016, a nerve-wrecking day for many. It was on that day that a slight majority of the British population voted to leave the EU. More than eighteen months later, Van Middelaar, Professor of Foundations of the European Union, observes: ‘it was a Machiavellian moment. We then realised more than ever that the EU is a vulnerable and even mortal being. It brought about a stronger will to live’. Article 50, the exit clause provided for by the 2007 Treaty of Lisbon, may have made the Union more democratic, but it also made the Union more vulnerable.
Between panic and bravado
After the referendum, many were worried that other countries would follow the British example: ‘The reactions were a combination of something between panic and bravado’. Agitated European leaders had to decide on their strategies and communication. However, President of the European Council Donald Tusk urged everyone to stay calm with the adage: ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’.
The Trump effect
Trump’s election took the reborn European self-awareness one step further, Van Middelaar argued. Indeed, the American president had made it perfectly clear that Europe would have to contribute more to its own military protection. It was Germany in particular who took the lead in this regard, wanting to get Europe back on its feet. Chancellor Merkel stated in her 2017 electoral campaign that ‘we Europeans’ can no longer fully rely on others. ‘We must take our fate into our own hands’.
EU more resilient than expected
The fear that Trump’s victory would help populist parties to power in Europe proved unfounded. Pro-European parties formed governments in France and the Netherlands. Van Middelaar concluded that the EU is more resilient than many would have thought.
However, as one British participant in the audience asked, is the German hegemony not dangerous to the extent that other states may be opposed to an EU led by an almighty Germany? Van Middelaar confirmed that this does indeed form a risk. The EU can only work when the internal balance is right. The rest of the two-day conference was thus mainly devoted to the question of how the future of the EU should look and what the best legal construction will be for the Union that is in the process of reinventing itself.