The result of the UK referendum on the European Union membership came as a shock to Europe and the World. As someone who lived for twelve years in Brussels and for eight years in the United Kingdom, I am familiar with the perceptions from both sides of the English Channel.
During my stay in Britain, I discussed the EU-UK relationship with many people who were having different professions and political preferences, and the conclusion was that after referendum the UK will remain in the EU. I started to doubt about this outcome two months ago, when I noticed that the pro-European campaign was marked by fear messages which emphasized the negative consequences of Brexit, rather than by positive messages about the mutual advantages of continuing as a part of the European Union.
Fear messages sometimes generate the opposite reaction than the expected one. Canadian friends in New York told me that a similar phenomenon was visible during the 1995 referendum for the independence of the province of Quebec: the more the adverse consequences for Quebec in the case of leaving Canada were emphasized, the more the support for the pro-independence party was increasing, and this factor contributed to the very close result (50.58% of votes were in favor of remaining in Canada).
The European Union was created in 1993 by the Treaty of Maastricht, but the legal procedure to withdraw from the Union was formally introduced only in 2009, by the Treaty of Lisbon (article 50 of the EU Treaty). Being mentioned in the Treaty, such an option is accepted as possible for Member States.
Brexit has no precedent in the EU history, still there were two withdrawals from its precursor, the European Economic Community (EEC), which was created in 1957. The first case refers to Algeria, which in 1957 was, legally speaking, part of the French Republic and therefore the Treaty of Rome applied to it (see article 227 paragraph 2 of the Treaty). Algeria lost this statute once it declared its independence in 1962. The second example is Greenland, which acceded to the EEC in 1973, as part of the Danish Realm. In 1979, Greenland was granted independence from Denmark and in 1982 they held a referendum regarding continuing membership in the EEC. The result was negative and, after two years of negotiations, Greenland left the EEC in 1985.
The differences between these examples and Brexit are huge, because the scale of integration of the EU Member States is in 2016 much more complex and profound than it was in 1962 or 1985, and the United Kingdom is an economic and financial superpower.
The British referendum generated a new situation both for the EU and the UK, whose consequences could not to be fully determined at this moment. Through its history, culture, traditions and shared values, the United Kingdom belongs to Europe, and it needs Europe as much as Europe needs the UK. There are thousands of common interests which link continental Europe to Great Britain. Therefore, this challenge needs to be approached « sine ira et studio » (without anger or bias).
This was also the message sent by the US Secretary of State John Kerry, during his recent visit to London and Brussels: "It is critical as we go forward in these next days to understand the importance of a strong EU. The United States cares about a strong EU". At the same time, he affirmed unequivocally that the United States will maintain its strong relationship with Great Britain: "Great Britain is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. Great Britain has a long and a special relationship with the United States". And he added: "It is now incumbent on leaders to implement the will of the people, and do so in a way that is responsible, sensitive, thoughtful, and, I hope, strategic. Ever since World War Two we have been working all together on the development of a structure to make our countries stronger and to be able to deliver a good life and benefits to our people".
The UK will probably no longer be part of the EU club (at least for a while). But there is life after Brexit. Changes are expected to take place in the functioning of the EU, and its Member States will probably redefine their strategies. The UK will always be the country of Magna Carta, but its relations with the EU will be reshaped to the new reality.
In 1624, the English poet John Donne wrote: "No man is an island. / Entire of itself, / Every man is a piece of the continent, / A part of the main. / If a clod be washed away by the sea, / Europe is the less". (Devotions upon Emergent Occasions). Paraphrasing these verses, in the era of globalization no island is anymore an island, and the UK has to find a common space with the EU, on the continent and worldwide.
For instance, there is no doubt that they will continue to work closely together within the United Nations framework, on global issues such as conflict prevention, peace keeping, peace building, fight against terrorism, human rights, climate change, mass migrations, refugees, humanitarian assistance, or the Agenda 2030 for sustainable development.
The history of the last sixty years has proved that, after each crisis, the European project became stronger. As Jean Monnet wrote in his memoirs: "Europe will be forged in crisis, and will be the sum of the solutions adopted for those crises".
The European enterprise was conceived as a "unity in diversity". The peoples of the EU are proud to be Europeans, and they are equally proud of their national identity. Therefore, the foundations of "an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe" imagined by Jean Monnet need to be consolidated with the peoples of Europe. We have to rediscover the European spirit and make people understand that unity is the key to generating prosperity and security.
An excellent example of unity and solidarity among EU Member States came during the recent elections for non-permanent members of the UN Security Council, on 28 June, in New York. Italy and the Netherlands went shoulder to shoulder in the race, and after five ballots they received an equal number of votes. Then, they symbolically decided to split the two years term mandate, so each of the two countries can serve for one year in the Security Council. It was a proof that if there is a will, there is a way, and ingenious solutions can be found to overcome difficult moments.