March 29 has loomed as the day of “Brexit,” when Great Britain would exit from the European Union – with or without a deal. That’s no longer the deadline, but the ever-shifting political landscape has observers guessing about what will happen and when. Kostas Kourtikakis is a University of Illinois political science professor and EU Center affiliate who teaches and studies European politics. He spoke with News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain about Brexit and its implications.
The British voted to leave the EU in June 2016. How would you describe the effect of that decision since?
Brexit has affected politics in Britain and the rest of the EU in surprising ways. While referenda typically signal the end of a public debate, this one, as it turns out, was just the beginning of a fierce squabble in Britain. Interestingly, it has caused less disruption in the rest of the EU. Even though member states often quarrel, they have been surprisingly united on this issue.
But there is a lot at stake for both sides. It is important that the EU and Britain part as friends and allies, as each is important for the other’s future. For the EU, in particular, this entails a delicate balancing act, as it wants to avoid giving the impression that it is punishing Britain, while at the same time discouraging other countries from following Britain’s example.
Some have attributed the Brexit vote to the “British being British,” seeing themselves as somewhat separate from the continent, but is that the case?
I don’t think British identity alone is a sufficient explanation. British beliefs about being distinctive have been around for a long time, including when Britain decided to join the EU in 1972. So, why did Britons act on it now?
I see the vote primarily as a British expression of the larger anti-elite sentiment that has swept Europe and the U.S. recently. Since its beginnings in the 1950s, European integration has been an elite-driven process. So, it is not surprising that in this era of anti-establishment politics that opposition to the EU has increased, not just in Britain, but also elsewhere in Europe. What is unique about Britain is that anti-elite attitudes, which have been strengthened by an extended period of economic austerity, were further intensified by the traditional British sense of distinctiveness.
Setting aside factors unique to Great Britain and the obvious complications in reworking economic ties, why is leaving the EU so difficult?
Leaving the EU is difficult by design. When countries become EU members, they agree to intertwine their economies, as well as their political and legal systems. In fact, until 2009, when the EU changed its rules, it was not even legally possible for a country to leave.
The reason is simple, and it has to do with the concept of credible commitment: Nobody, including its own member states, would take the EU seriously if countries did not commit to it and could leave at will. Because the member states know they are stuck together, they are forced to work together, resolve differences peacefully and find solutions that work for all of them. The logic is similar to what happens in families: We can’t break up with members of our family, so we have to find a way to live with them.
In comparing the EU’s union of 28 nations to the U.S. union of 50 states, what makes the EU vulnerable? And valuable?
The EU has managed to bring together those 28 countries, which have very different histories, cultures and political traditions, around a set of core values, such as democracy, peace and the free market. This is incredibly valuable, not just for peace and cooperation in Europe, but even beyond Europe, where the EU is often seen as an example of an organization practicing those values.
But when we compare the EU with the U.S., we see the limitations of European integration. Without a strong sense of common identity and independent central institutions, like those of the U.S., the EU is particularly vulnerable to crises like Brexit.
Which brings us to the three big questions lurking in the background of the Brexit debate. Will the EU move toward a more federal Europe, with stronger central institutions and weaker national governments? If yes, who will be a part of it? If not, what happens next?