June 27, 2016
For some time, Grexit was mentioned as a possibility and that was troubling enough. Then came Brexit, dealing an unexpected blow to the EU and leading to understandable worries regarding the consequences for UK’s unity, the global economy, European security, NATO, West’s relations with Russia and China and even Washington’s pivot to Asia. This, however, was first and foremost a historic choice by the British people on their country’s future. And, the referendum campaign reflected a tradition of maturity and civility with the exception of the tragic death of Labor MP Jo Cox. This should be yet another lesson for all those Middle Eastern peoples engaged in medieval sectarian wars and for their leaders who are determined not to embrace democratic values and the rule of law.
Many analysts rightly say that the British referendum wasn’t exactly about the EU; that it was about class and inequality, a revolt against global capitalism. As the maps of results showed, it was indeed about income inequality, the growing disparity between the disposable income of the richest 10% and the poorest 10%, not to speak of the richest 1%. Unfortunately, this has been the global trend for the last twenty-five years. This is not to say that Brussels and the EU bureaucracy were not issues of relevance. To a certain extent they were.
Two days after British voters decided that they wanted to leave the European Union, Foreign Ministers of Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, the six founding countries, met in Berlin to discuss the speed and strategy of Britain’s exit. In a joint statement they said, “This creates a new situation… We now expect the UK government to provide clarity and give effect to this decision as soon as possible.”
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said he would like to get started on it immediately. “Britons decided that they want to leave the European Union, so it doesn’t make any sense to wait until October to try to negotiate the terms of their departure,” he said, referring to PM David Cameron’s announcement that he would step down but not before a new leader could be installed in October. This uncalled-for statement, probably a needless outburst of pent-up frustration with the talks hitherto held with London, may help explain EU peoples’ frustration with and dislike of the Brussels bureaucracy.
As usual, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was the voice of wisdom saying that she was not in favor of pushing for a speedy withdrawal. “It shouldn’t take forever, that’s right, but I would not fight for a short time frame,” she said.
It has been announced that the European Council will discuss the outcome of the UK referendum this week. On Tuesday, Prime Minister Cameron will explain the situation in the UK after the vote, followed by a first exchange of views. On Wednesday, the 27 heads of state or government will meet informally to discuss the political and practical implications of the referendum results. They will also start a debate on the future of the European Union with 27 member states.
It is interesting why the six “founding countries” felt the urge to get together immediately in Berlin and issued a statement and did not wait for the meeting of the 27 on Tuesday. Isn’t Brexit a problem for all? Wouldn’t starting to address the challenge with a meeting of 27 member-states have been a more democratic approach?
The UK was a member of the EU for forty-three years. It did not join the Euro Zone. And, in the field of foreign policy she always remained very much aware of her special relationship with the US. Sometimes this led to discord within the EU, the most visible case being the 2003 US-UK invasion of Iraq. France and Germany strongly opposed the intervention. As could be expected, following the referendum, another strong opponent of that invasion, President Obama said that the one thing that will not change is the special relationship that exists between the US and the UK.
In spite of the fact that Turkey became a campaign issue, much to Turkish disappointment, London had generally been supportive of Turkey’s EU bid in the past. So, one may say that that Brexit is a loss for Turkey too. It appears that the next few years are going to be a time of confusion, reflection and maybe internal controversy for the EU. Turkey has a legitimate interest in the arrangements to be reached between the UK and the EU on economic, financial and commercial matters in view of the customs union. Beyond that, Turkey can use this time to extract herself from Middle Eastern turmoil, restore friendships and return to the democratic path. At this stage, the best we can do on the accession process would be to keep a dignified silence.