Brexit could be an opportunity for Europe, if we know how to seize it

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The huge victory for the Brexit camp might throw Europe off balance at first, but it will put an end to the ambiguities of the UK’s position in Europe, and force Europeans to reinvent themselves.

The alarmists who are making a lot of noise over the British vote might disagree, but Brexit could be an opportunity for Europe to finally become a political and social union, to finally meet the challenges of the 20th century with a set of shared rules. We could also say, without wanting to offend those who are mourning Britain’s exit today, that Brexit is a victory for clarity.

For a long time Britain has had one foot – or even a foot and a half – outside Europe, and the forced concessions that Cameron had to make to keep his country in the EU were excessive. Each embarrassing episode, Britain’s umpteenth rejection of Europe, only reinforced an image of the EU as a club of aging conservatives, devoid of ideas and spine.

The “Leave” victory could even be a blessing. It’s better than a short-lived “Remain” victory, which would have only prolonged the ambiguities of the EU-UK relationship. It’s better to say “Rest in Peace, UK”. The first lesson to draw from this absurd referendum will probably be that the UK first had to commit suicide in order to regain its “independence”.

Putting aside the global city of London, it was England (and Wales) that voted for Brexit. There’s hardly any doubt that within two years – the minimum time it will take to negotiate the UK’s exit from the EU – Scotland will once again vote on whether to exit the UK. Except that this time they will vote to leave the crown, in order to stay in the EU. Maybe they will even choose to join the eurozone.

In Northern Ireland, Brexit threatens to upset the fragile peace between the country’s various communities. By voting to remain, the part of the United Kingdom nestled on the island of Ireland gave a victory to Irish Republicans. Those in Northern Ireland who want to unite with the Republic of Ireland have effectively won a referendum-within-the-referendum against Irish Unionists, who leaned heavily towards the “Leave” camp. The UK exit will probably awaken tensions that could lead to new violence.

England’s position on the international map will certainly be weakened, including in its unique relationship with the United States – especially if the Democrats hold onto the White House in November. Washington maintained a privileged relationship with Britain largely because it gave the US a kind of bridgehead into Europe. An England that is turned in on itself will have much less interest for Americans.

Seizing an opportunity to reinvent Europe

The British people are geniuses. It’s up to them to prove that they’re better off outside of Europe. They’ve survived much worse during their long history and it would be a mistake to forecast their decline.

For Europe, though, this decisive vote could offer an opportunity.

It’s important not to become too distressed by the behaviour of the markets, which are dropping because they didn’t anticipate the result of the Brexit vote. They will get back on their feet. The cleverest people are already waiting for the best moment to buy. The markets are by definition focused on the short term, while Europe, more than ever, needs to be focused on the long term.

That’s because Europe no longer inspires confidence or enthusiasm, and not just in Britain. Europe is no longer the reassuring project it once was. Instead it’s a land of bureaucracy and porous borders, of weak growth and high unemployment, of economic inequality and nonsensical standards. Brexit is the UK’s sanction of this Europe – and a reminder that many other countries, if given the choice, would vote as Britain did and answer the clamouring siren calls of populism and nationalism.

In less than 20 years the European nations have swung from euro-enthusiasm to euroscepticism, since their governments have preferred enlarging the European Union at all costs rather than consolidating the initial European project. European leaders have repeatedly postponed the choice to move towards federalism and integration, which are the only future for Europe if it wants to be anything more than a big common market.

Going in that direction will be easier without Britain. That’s why euro-enthusiasts like Michel Rocard hoped for a Brexit. But as Rocard himself said, Europeans may not know what to do with this opportunity. For us to grab it, the countries that built Europe will need leaders of true vision.

This piece was translated from the original in French.