Coming to Terms with Brexit: What Lies Ahead for EU-UK Relations?

Written by | Wednesday, February 5th, 2020
@Eubulletin

I have mixed feelings about Brexit“.

It ends the United Kingdom’s dithering, which one has observed during all those years of its membership of the European Union, even after the op-outs it obtained from the bloc. The UK was always in and out. It became an obstacle to further integration. It was neither ever ready to surrender parts of its sovereignty, nor realized its sovereignty was actually enhanced by pooling it with the sovereignties of the other EU member states. So, now it has its own sovereignty and independence back, or at least this is what it claims.

It is good that the UK leaves the EU for it to experience what it is like to be an independent sovereign state in this new complex world, being forced to navigate between the major powers – the EU, United States, Russia and rising China. It is through this experience that it may one day reflect on whether the decision to leave was correct and timely. Faced with failed UK-EU trade agreement negotiations, when trade between the UK and the EU will be governed by WTO rules, UK voters may perhaps in the future decide to re-join the EU.

A few authors have rightly pointed out that this Brexit is not just about the UK leaving the EU, but also exiting the world, so to speak, as a former colonial and imperial power. After de-colonization ended in the 1970s, the UK joined what was then the European Economic Community (EEC) for the sake of its economic survival. London wanted to join up with its natural geographical neighbors across the channel but it still expected the ‘Old Continent’ to treat the UK with “respect”, granting the UK a special status, perhaps also because the British felt they had liberated European nations from Nazism.

Somewhere deep in the psyche of the UK people, and particularly the English, there is this belief that the UK is still a big power, especially since it is endowed with the biggest armed forces in Europe, including nuclear submarines. But the UK has so far failed to realize that, even with its nuclear capability and newly built aircraft carriers, it is still a medium-sized power in the global context. Without the US on its side, the UK is no global power and hence one can expect London to ally itself closer to Washington and act like the ‘US poodle’. The UK could still manage to sustain the Commonwealth, which was mainly designed to keep a hold on its former colonies, but we shall see what steps the Commonwealth’s nowadays independent and sovereign member states, who have not forgotten their colonial past, will take in the coming years.

The sad reality is that the UK has just taken the huge step of leaving the EU that a majority of its population does not want. The UK has left the bloc because certain political forces have elevated a rigged, corrupt and unfair popular vote – Brexit referendum – in 2016 into something all-powerful, that must be obeyed and not disputed. These forces even refused holding a second referendum, claiming that it would be undemocratic. The 2016 referendum was clearly badly designed and rigged for a number of reasons: the “Leave” camp was not required to settle on a particular alternative to ‘remaining in the EU’, a great part of UK citizens living in the EU were excluded from the vote, the Leave campaign may have been funded by Russian money, and, last but not the least, most of the right-wing press were effectively part of the Leave campaign, providing what is best described as propaganda.

I feel sad about Brexit. While working in the European Parliament, I enjoyed the interaction with UK’s MEPs, civil servants, representatives from the NGO sector, as I felt they were convinced Europeans. I wish that the EU member states would be more open and generous to UK citizens who are retired, living and working in the EU to be able to continue their lives on the continent. Brussels should be more generous to UK citizens than the ‘deal’ that the UK is now offering to EU citizens. And the EU should also open its doors to Britain’s ‘Remainers’ who believe in the idea of a united Europe. To that end, Brussels needs to focus on the future generations, notably today’s young Britons, who should still have the opportunity to participate in the Erasmus scheme. Since its launch in 1987, Erasmus has become one of the most progressive achievements of the European integration process, sending millions of European students and teachers to study, train, work and volunteer in another EU member state, thus strengthening a sense of a collective European “soul”.

Therefore, it was very painful for me to hear that the Conservative-dominated British Parliament had struck down a proposed clause in the Brexit bill that would have made the
UK membership in the Erasmus scheme after Brexit a priority issue in the upcoming EU-UK negotiations. In this sense, I am sad about Brexit but we have to live with that reality and do our best to keep the borders, physical and otherwise, open to exchanges between the UK and 27-member European Union.

Professor Paul Joseph Lim is currently affiliated as an Associate Fellow with the University of Tübingen, Germany. He was previously Head of the Centre for European Studies at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM). He attained a PhD in Political and Labor Sociology from Universite? Catholique de Louvain, Institut des Sciences du Travail, Belgium. In 2007-2010, he was a Senior Academic Advisor at the European Institute for Asian Studies, Brussels. His main research interests include ASEAN, EU-ASEAN and ASEM and the EU’s relations with Taiwan and China. He has had an over 35 years of professional experience both in Europe and in Asia as professor, researcher, political adviser, and coordinator of educational exchange programmes.

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