Since the referendum, it has become clear that the negative economic consequences of a Brexit are real and potentially severe, just as many economists and experts predicted. For the UK, an important political question is whether or not it can and will remain united. The Brexit vote also raises big political questions for the EU and its leaders, who must learn important lessons and adjust.
Of course, at this point, there is still massive uncertainty about whether and when the UK will actually exit. The British Parliament has the final say on the decision, and it probably also needs to first authorize May’s government to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which lays out the procedures for a withdrawal from the EU. A lot can happen in the next few months, as well as during the exit negotiations. It is entirely possible that once the negative economic consequences take hold, the British mood changes and new elections take place, after which the Parliament could decide against following through with a Brexit. On the flipside, more time could also allow the UK and the EU to mitigate the Brexit fallout.
For the UK going forward, there will be strong political forces pulling toward a breakup. It is not clear to me how one can respect the will of the people expressed in the referendum, yet deny Scotland another independence referendum of its own if the UK follows through with the Brexit. A similar issue could arise in Northern Ireland.
As the EU is largely a political project, it is also essential to view things through a political lens, rather than just from an economic perspective. Politics often prevails over economics, as we saw in the Greek sovereign-debt crisis. Politics will also dominate the exit negotiations. Therefore, most of the Brexit consequences for the EU are, in my mind, political in nature as well. The biggest loss is the change in the balance of power within the EU. Here the UK played an important role as a liberal and free-markets force. Thus, future EU negotiations will be substantially different.
The Brexit vote should be used as an opportunity to find a new resolve. First and foremost, the EU and its leaders need to do a much better job communicating what the political project is all about. There are actually many successes that are worth emphasizing. There are more abstract ones, such as peace and a staunch defense of basic human rights. Conflicts of interest between countries are dealt with in an entirely different way, instead of the old saber rattling. But there are also concrete achievements. For instance, the EU and its predecessors played an important role in the demise of the dictatorships in southern Europe and the stability of those countries afterward. Another example are EU student exchanges such as the very successful Erasmus Programme (European Region Action Scheme for Mobility of University Students), which has offered millions of students the opportunity to study abroad and has done a lot for joint cultural understanding. In addition, there are concrete economic successes. For instance, the euro has had a profound effect on price competition within the eurozone, ultimately benefiting consumers.
But it is not just a matter of communication. EU leaders must change as well. They need to recognize that Europe needs a more democratically legitimized foundation. The paternalistic attitude of current and former EU leaders that says, “Trust us. We know what is best for Europe,” will not work going forward. The recent rise of populism all over the EU illustrates that the leaders and elites have lost thought leadership, or the “sovereignty of interpretation” of what is happening in the world. EU leaders need to regain the trust of their people and to do so need to explain their plans and actions in a more transparent and extensive way.
Ultimately, the EU needs more time. It is a project that should be judged in decades or perhaps even centuries, not years. But there is a real risk of losing the achievements of the last 50 years if European leaders do not stabilize the EU and rein in centrifugal forces.
For more from the Chicago Booth faculty on the fallout of the Brexit vote, visit our collection here.