While the British press is mired in a fruitless debate about the merits of Hard Brexit (i.e. exit of the Single Market and Customs Union) versus Soft Brexit (i.e. exit of the EU but not the Single Market or Customs Union)—a debate which assumes that the EU will even allow the British Government such a choice—much less attention has been paid to the question of what the EU should offer Britain. Or to put this question in more alarmist terms: how do we prevent Brexit from destroying the European project of integration?

Three options for the EU

If the European Union wants to avoid the dangers of a Brexit-provoked disintegration, it has three options, which are not mutually exclusive. First, it can adopt an uncompromising position in the negotiations with the British government over access to the Single Market. Some in the British pro-Leave camp hope to stay in the Single Market, but without allowing freedom of movement for EU citizens and without the financial contributions that the EU requires. The EU would be crazy to allow the British government to attain this asymmetrical benefit, if only because it would encourage other EU countries to follow Britain’s lead. Less ambitious Leavers are willing to give up membership in the Single Market in the hope that Britain can still negotiate relatively favorable access to the latter. The British Treasury is particularly eager to retain so-called passporting rights for UK financial services, which make up such a significant proportion of the economy; the Treasury further hopes to maintain not only zero-tariff access to the Single Market for export goods, but somehow keep in place the full range of non-tariff measures that grease the wheels of European trade.

From the perspective of this first option, the EU should refuse to extend Britain any favors at all. Banks should be required to move Head Offices to the Continent, before they have equal access to the various European financial markets. Along the same lines, the EU should exclude British universities and researchers from European research grants. Many British researchers have been hoping that the Government will be able to buy access and remain as part of European consortiums as if Brexit had not happened. Furthermore, the EU should require the many important regulatory agencies based in Britain—including the European Medicines Agency and the European Banking Authority—to relocate to a EU country. By the same token, the EU could make crafty use of non-tariff measures to hinder British exports. In short, Britain needs to be made to pay an economic price for Brexit pour decourager les autres.

Britain cannot be allowed to undercut the EU. It cannot be allowed to pursue beggar-thy neighbor policies that undermine what passes for the European Social Model.

A second option—not inconsistent with the first—is to encourage British isolation and make no efforts to reintegrate Britain into European affairs. Britain has always been something of a reluctant member of the EU. It was late to the party and once present was forever vetoing new projects and dampening enthusiasm for further integration. Absent Britain, the more enthusiastic integrationist member states—hopefully including the three big powers France, Germany, and Italy—can move together in a more federal direction without having to worry about the British wet blankets. The danger of pursuing this option, however, is that a Britain outside Europe could still pose a threat to the integrationist project. Britain could become a very low tax and lightly regulated competitor, better able to attract large-scale foreign direct investment. If this isolationist option is to be pursued, it would still need to be done in conjunction with option one. Britain cannot be allowed to undercut the EU. It cannot be allowed to pursue beggar-thy neighbor policies that undermine what passes for the European Social Model.

A proposal on citizenship

A third option—which represents an alternative, altogether more positive and progressive path—is for the EU to pursue a long-term project of re-integrating Britain. It must be remembered that 63% of British adults did not vote for Brexit, the vote was split very closely 52%-48%. There remain a large number of voters who want a second referendum; that number will grow if Leave is seen to fail (hence the irresistibility of option one). It is unlikely, however, that the EU could improve its popularity without employing both carrot and stick. The EU needs to reward those British voters who remain loyal to the EU. It needs to increase the relative size of the pro-Remain camp by making the EU more attractive than it now is.

The EU can rescue pro-Europeans from their fallen state by offering them European citizenship—European passports unmediated by national citizenship, which will provide them with the right to live and work anywhere in Europe. Many British citizens will jump at the opportunity.

One step in the right direction would be for the EU to move towards a form of European citizenship unmediated by any prior national citizenship. At the moment, people in Europe are offered only the status of being hyphenated Europeans (French-European; German-European, Italian-European etc.) rather than Europeans as such. Brexit provides an opportunity here. Sixteen million Brits voted to remain in the EU. These people will now lose even their meagre hyphenated status and become, for the most part, reluctant national citizens of a country in the grip of populist nativism. The EU can rescue pro-Europeans from their fallen state by offering them European citizenship—European passports unmediated by national citizenship, which will provide them with the right to live and work anywhere in Europe. Many British citizens will jump at the opportunity.

One small problem with this proposal is that it offers the British an advantage not currently extended to other Europeans, including, most worryingly, those now living in Britain who are threatened with losing their right to live and work there. To address this problem, the offer of unmediated European citizenship for Brits could be made conditional on Britain offering current EU citizens full national citizenship in Britain. Doubtless, the current Tory Government backed up the anti-immigrant UKIP will reject this suggestion. Alternatively, the offer of EU citizenship for Brits could be made contingent on certain forms of equitable treatment for current EU citizens resident in Britain. Such contingent offers from the EU will further encourage the pro-European British citizens to fight for the rights of current EU citizens in Britain. Any future British government that might wish to play fast and loose with such people will face the ire of the pro-European British eagerly awaiting the opportunity to acquire EU citizenship.

The EU has done a very poor job in managing recent crises. If it is to recover its popularity, it needs to rethink some basic assumptions concerning the processes of integration, which, in the past have relied heavily on functional spillovers and intergovernmental bargains.

More generally, it might be objected that this citizenship proposal rewards secessionists like Britain by offering the British a desirable form of unmediated citizenship that is not extended to other more loyal Europeans. This objection can be met, however, by offering any current EU citizen unmediated European citizenship free of charge, but charging the British, say €10,000, to acquire European citizenship. This policy will not only provide the funds to finance the Citizenship Office, which will have to be created de novo, but will discourage countries from thinking that they can secede from Europe while enjoying the full benefits of membership. If €10,000 is too much for some people, they could be offered European citizenship for free in return for working on pro-EU projects, which could be arranged and overseen by the new Citizenship Office.

No room for complacency

These three options are clearly not the only ones available. The nationalism that infuses UKIP and other right-wing parties in Europe represents a mortal threat to the project of European integration. Liberals who have grown accustomed to a relatively stable broadly democratic European continent cannot afford complacency, if they want to avoid complete European disintegration. The EU has done a very poor job in managing recent crises, whether those involving the Monetary Union or North African immigration. If it is to recover its popularity, it needs to rethink some basic assumptions concerning the processes of integration, which, in the past have relied heavily on functional spillovers and intergovernmental bargains. European citizenship has always been secondary to economic and legal integration. Brexit provides an occasion for re-thinking European citizenship, such that a citizen of Europe has tangible benefits guaranteed by the EU and unmediated by membership in a nation-state. If the EU plays its cards right, the British can be the guinea pigs to test this new form of citizenship.


Centro Einaudi - LogoA longer version of this article has appeared in Biblioteca delle Libertà


Photo Credito CC Garon S



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