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Britain’s EU Referendum: A View from Central Europe

Commentary, 17 June 2016
European Union, International Security Studies, UK, Europe
Britain’s EU referendum debate has been largely self-focused; with the exception of increasingly shrill warnings about increasing waves of migration from Central Europe - there has been no discussion of the implications of the result on relatively new EU member states.

But whichever camp triumphs on 23 June, it would be up to one Central European nation – Slovakia, which takes over the presidency of the Union for the second half of this year – to implement the ballot’s outcome. And, as the contributions below from scholars in the region indicate, the Central Europeans will be deeply affected by Britain’s choice, regardless of what that may be.

For some EU member-states in Central Europe, a Brexit  would bring with it the risk  of marginalisation, as key Western European governments such as those of Germany or France scramble to tighten EU structures in the wake of a British departure. For other Central Europeans, a  Brexit would signify the end of a  dream – and a very short one at that - about forging a new strategic relationship between their nations and Britain. Yet opinion in Central Europe seems to be united on one point: a British departure would weaken the continent as a whole, giving an opportunity to those who wish to shatter Europe’s current security arrangements. For, as the French would say, “Quand c’est flou, il y a un loup”, or “When it’s blurred, there’s a wolf”. Or in this case perhaps, a bear.

Below are the views of three senior policy researchers from Central Europe, who share their perspectives on the impact of Britain's EU referendum.

Jonathan Eyal

 

Vladimír Bartovic, Director of EUROPEUM Institute for European Policy, Prague

This referendum is not only about UK membership itself, but it also has the potential to define the future of European integration more broadly. A Brexit would certainly support the further development of similar ideas in other member states, including countries of Central Europe.

The Visegrad countries have traditionally shared many similar interests and positions with the UK on foreign and security policy, including strong support for the transatlantic partnership, the promotion of the Eastern Partnership, and a cautious stance towards Russia. Central European countries and the UK are resolute supporters of the completion of the European single market, the removal of barriers, international trade liberalization, and measures enhancing the competitiveness of the Union. A Brexit would undermine the prioritization of these topics in EU policies.

Moreover, it would further shift the balance between the Eurozone and non-Eurozone member states. Unlike Slovakia, other Visegrad member states would most likely remain outside the Eurozone. The UK is the second largest economy in the EU and by a wide margin the largest among countries outside the Eurozone. A Brexit would significantly weaken the position of states outside the Eurozone. A UK withdrawal from the European single market would also exert an impact on foreign trade in our region and would translate into countries receiving fewer resources from the cohesion funds of the EU budget, which would lose one of the biggest net contributors. A Brexit would also threaten the position of hundreds of thousands of citizens from the Central European member states who live in the UK, with their future status remaining unclear.

On the other hand, it is important to note that even if the UK decides to remain a member, the EU will change. The deal between the UK and the rest of the EU adopted by the European Council in February 2016 confirmed that a multi-speed or multi-tier Europe is a new reality.

 

Vladimír Bilčík, Head of EU Programme, Slovak Foreign Policy Association, Bratislava

Regardless of the outcome, the UK referendum will affect EU politics in Central Europe. Of most immediate concern, the result of a British vote on 23 June is going to shape both the context and priorities for Slovakia’s EU Council Presidency beginning 1 July 2016.

A UK decision in favour of continued EU membership might provide some practical meaning to the leitmotif of Slovakia’s EU Council Presidency – namely, how to confront EU fragmentation. In practical terms, Slovakia’s diplomacy would be tasked with managing tricky negotiations over legislation to implement the February EU-UK deal on curbing social benefits to future workers in Britain arriving from Central Europe. This will be no easy task as other member states may wish to benefit from the precedent of an EU decision on the British social system. If managed well, however, Slovakia’s EU Council Presidency could succeed in closing the current Brexit debate.

More broadly, a positive outcome in the UK would create both the space and momentum necessary to deal with the common EU agenda. Bratislava would be able to count on wider political support for its presidential priorities, which are likely to include measures related to the functioning of the digital single market and the securing of an Energy Union. Additional initiatives would include legislation aimed at underpinning the fiscal and banking arms of the Eurozone and an enhancement of control over migration through the European Border and Coast Guard. Moreover, a British yes vote would help to start negotiations on revisions to the current EU financial perspective lasting until 2020.

If, however, the UK decides to leave the EU, Slovakia would preside over a divided Council with no pre-written template for dealing with London’s exit. This situation would put many plans for the Council Presidency on the back burner. Rewriting the EU budget or enhancing the digital single market might prove to be too daunting in light of a British exit. With divisions among the remaining EU-27 and a potential shrinking of the EU ahead under this scenario, it would be difficult to imagine integration leaps in the Eurozone.

While Slovakia would focus on crisis management tasks through the Council Presidency, other Visegrad countries could open fresh debates on their respective terms of EU membership. Although Central Europe would be better served by a British decision to remain in the EU, political and economic actors in this region must equally anticipate a less pleasant scenario.  

 

Paweł Zerka, Head of Foreign Policy Research, WiseEuropa think tank, Warsaw

Last January, Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski surprised many observers in Poland and abroad when he announced that Great Britain (not Germany) would become the country’s major partner in the EU. Some of the government’s most devoted advocates presented it as evidence of its dedication to keep the UK in the EU. However, given a persistent technical tie between Brexit supporters and adversaries, Poland’s Law and Justice ruling party seems to have taken a rather risky bet.

To be sure, its “British affair” will make sense only as long as the UK does not dare to exit – and even then only to a limited extent. If the Brexit option prevails, Poland and the other Central European countries may find themselves in a significantly less friendly EU than the one that they had entered a decade earlier. An “equal sign” between Europe and the EU, which after the cold war almost became an axiom, will cease to apply. Most probably, the EU’s crawling disintegration will take the form of strengthened integration in narrower circles, such as among the Eurozone’s western members.

Countries of Central Europe, most of whom are still outside the Eurozone, will be increasingly pushed towards the EU’s periphery, unless they accept the rules of the game preferred by the region’s unrivalled hegemon, Germany. With the UK out, and assuming France’s further repli sur soi (withdrawal into oneself), it will become even harder than today to provide a counterweight to German ideas for the EU, especially given the current polyphony within the Visegrad4. In such a new EU, the psychological map of the region would also change, reminding Central Europeans of their geographic proximity to Moscow.

Of course, events would transpire much differently with the Brits staying in. The UK may thus become a valuable partner for the Polish conservative government if it continues to seek a multi-speed EU of variable geometries, with a stronger role of national capitals and greater emphasis on the single market vis-à-vis the Eurozone as the major champ of European integration. However, there would be clear limits to such an alliance. Warsaw should not forget that the triangle linking it to Berlin and London will always have three sides. 

 

Our gratitude to Milan Nič and Jana Psarska from the GLOBSEC Policy Institute in Bratislava, Slovakia, who collected these views, and to the International Visegrad Fund, which supports GLOBSEC in this effort. For more contributions in this series, see http://www.cepolicy.org/projects/view-central-europe

 

Author

Jonathan Eyal
Associate Director, Strategic Research Partnerships

Dr Eyal is the Associate Director, Strategic Research Partnerships, and International Director, at the Royal United Services Institute... read more

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