In Spite of Brexit, European Union Expansion Looks Likely

Nearly two years after the initial referendum shocked the world, Brexit negotiations are still an ongoing process, dominating British politics. On November 25th, EU leaders agreed to a set of Brexit negotiations, with the only remaining step being approval from the British Parliament. However, as on December 10th, Theresa May called off a parliamentary vote on said negotiations as it would likely be rejected. The process has been one of disagreements and division, with calls for parliament to block the vote, for a second referendum, and even for a Scottish independence referendum. While Brexit is yet to come into effect, it still has a tremendous impact, not only on Britain but on the entire European Union.

Brexit rallied a combination of legitimate concerns about the EU with a wider populist movement spreading across Europe. As such, the vote not only had relevance to the UK but to various other countries and the European Union as an institution. Global newspapers referenced a “European counterrevolution” to possible ‘Frexits’ or ‘Grexits’. Others claimed that Brexit was a “symptom of larger problems with the European Union”. Outside of the EU, the election of Donald Trump was frequently tied into Brexit, expressing support for the populist referendum.

But the doom and gloom forecast by pundits has not manifested. 42% of Europeans have trust in the European Union, compared to 33% in 2016, and the highest level since 2010. Similarly, the percentage of Europeans with a positive opinion of the EU has been the highest since 2010, although satisfaction with the EU has not reached pre-financial crisis peaks. More positively, the percentage of Europeans feeling that their voice counts in the EU are the highest since the EU began public polling on the matter.

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Although cryptic, there is a reason for this increased satisfaction. Primarily, Brexit delegitimized Euroskeptic movements by exposing the difficulty of leaving the EU.  EU-exit movements claimed that processes of leaving the EU would be rather simple, or at least achievable in a reasonable amount of time. At two years and counting, the continuing process with the UK has shown exactly the opposite; Brexit has repeatedly caused conflict within the UK domestic political sphere. Additionally, Brexit forced the general public to become aware of the facets of the EU that they took for granted; for example, the situation with the border of Northern Ireland has been a focal point of negotiations, splitting the Irish island into effectively two deeply divided nations. Secondly, in the time period that Brexit dominated news headlines, financial optics were almost entirely negative. Immediately after the vote, British stocks fell around 8% as well as the British Pound falling significantly against the dollar. Since then, the value of both the Pound and British stocks have fluctuated, usually trending downwaras, with any news surrounding the Brexit negotiation process.  While the rhetoric of anti-EU movements generally focused on social and political problems rather economics, they often claimed that economic problems would not be nearly as significantly as opponents claimed; pro-EU parties now had a concrete example to dispel those myths. Overall, Brexit actually weakened anti-EU movements and parties, as evidenced by the lack of success of any EU-exit movement since.

Assuming the UK leaves the EU on March 29, the EU will rid itself of the most powerful, consistent, and vocal opponent to both EU integration and expansion. The UK itself has often resisted EU integration and policies, being described as an “awkward partner” to EU policies. The UK has been opposed to expansion by focusing on sovereignty or the often undemocratic legislative process in Brussels. For expansion, Britain was among the most prominent voices during the 2007 ascension of Bulgaria and Romania. While the general public can only speculate what may happen after the Brexit negotiations finish, further expansion and integration seems the most likely possibility.

To be clear, Brexit is not all joy for the European Union. While much of the reasoning behind the vote – xenophobia, outright incorrect budgetary remarks, false promises – should not be taken seriously, some of the anti-EU sentiment have weight.  In particular, the overly technocratic and opaque aspects of the institution must be addressed. Furthermore, the austerity measures used in various countries have only led to wider social problems and hurt the most vulnerable populations. The EU must continue to evaluate its flaws and weaknesses and make itself more transparent and accountable to the public. However, since Brexit, the European Union has only become stronger; its presence as a legitimate governing force has increased, outright opposition has decreased, and the expansion and integration possibilities look promising. The prophesized “death of the EU” has been anything but true: if anything, Brexit was a revival of the EU.

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