UCL Faculty of Laws


Academic view: Professor Ronan McCrea on Brexit

For a European Union that had been buffeted by a decade of negative stories from the Eurozone to mass migration, Brexit has, perhaps surprisingly, turned into something of a boost.

Academic view: Professor Ronan McCrea
Having spent years being criticized for being impotent, ineffective or worse, the Union was suddenly confronted with something unprecedented: the departure of a Member State.

Given that European integration was meant to be a near inevitable process of “ever closer union”, this should have been a body blow. Yet, as it turned out, more than three years later, the Union is looking, if anything more secure.

While the departure of the UK is a blow, the failure of British leaders to articulate a convincing account of the benefits that will accrue to the UK through leaving the Union has undermined the arguments of Eurosceptics in other Member States, leading to a notable softening in the attitudes of politicians such as Marine LePen in France.

The political chaos that has taken over in London has been a further reminder to European leaders of the dangers of breaking with the Union. The British Parliament has been paralysed by indecision; unable to muster a majority in favour of any specific version of Brexit but equally unable to get a majority to cancel Brexit altogether. The EU, on the other hand, has been remarkably united.

The 27 remaining states agreed early on their priorities and have stuck with them. Faced with an existential threat to the Union, Member States realized just how valuable it is to them. From the beginning, they have been determined to protect the integrity of the Union by avoiding a cherry-picking Brexit. They have all agreed that a Brexit that allowed the UK to select the bits of the Single Market it liked would threaten to unravel the EU as a whole by encouraging other Member States to seek the same thing.

The Union has also been determined to support the Irish government in its dispute with the UK over the status of the Ireland-Northern Ireland border. This support demonstrates how seriously the EU takes membership. It will always favour the interests of a member over a non-member and, as a body whose membership is mainly made up of smaller states, it has to show that it is an effective way for smaller states to protect their interests.

The failure of UK politicians to anticipate the EU’s approach echoes some of the blindspots in the Anglosphere in relation to the EU. In the Eurozone crisis, American political economists such as Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz were perplexed by the failure of the Eurozone, which they saw as an economically illogical construction, to collapse. Similarly, in relation to Brexit, many British politicians thought that the UK’s deficit in trade in goods with the EU would mean that EU leaders would insist on a free trade deal that preserved much UK access to the Single Market.

This is partly because many US commentators and UK politicians have always seen the EU as an almost exclusively economic project, a free-trade area with a few bits added on. In both cases, they failed to understand the depth of the political commitment of Europe’s political leaders to the broader project of European integration which meant that they were willing to endure short term economic pain to protect a project they believed in.

The UK may ultimately leave the EU if it chooses, but the idea that the EU would ever make this process painless misunderstood the nature of the Union and the determination of its leaders to prioritise its long term future over any short term pain.