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Brexit: a defining moment for European Integration

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The nature of the United Kingdom’s (UK) membership of the European Union (EU) has been a complicated issue since before its beginning. Although it was Winston Churchill who first proposed the idea of a Union of European States, the British political establishment never regarded with good eyes the involvement of the UK in the European project. The birthplace of Parliamentarism has always been suspicious of EU interference in its sovereign realm. This reluctance in participating in EU integration has been made clear over the years, with negotiations on opt-outs to the Maastricht Treaty, or the refusal to sign to the Charter of Fundamental Rights.

Although calls regarding a change on the constitutional relationship between the UK and the EU have been historically recurrent, they became more vocal with the 2008 crisis. The rising impact of immigration and its subsequent effect in the UK’s social security system, together with a more integrationist stance of the EU regarding banking and financial regulation prompted renewed protests against Britain’s participation in EU integration. This was reflected in the 2014 elections for the European Parliament, where the United Kindgom’s Independence Party (UKIP) was the most voted party, winning 24 seats. Pressured by members of its own Conservative party, Prime-Minister David Cameron pledged in its reelection campaign in 2015 not only to renegotiate with Brussels a “new deal” regarding the nature of UK’s membership, but also to hold a referendum on Britain’s involvement in the EU.

Following his reelection, Prime-Minister Cameron started to engage EU institutions and political heads of Member States in November of the past year, through a letter sent to President of the European Council Donald Tusk. The objective was to reach an agreement in which the UK would regain more sovereign autonomy from the EU, especially regarding economic governance, competitiveness and immigration. After a series of talks, a deal was unanimously reached in the European Council in the evening of February 19th.

The key achievements of this deal can be summed up as follows. On economic governance, it was acknowledged that the EU is a multi-currency area. However, non-eurozone countries are not responsible for bailouts of eurozone countries, and may request political and normative discussions regarding euro laws that may affect their financial stability. Furthermore, decisions of the European Central Bank (ECB) shall only have authority over eurozone credit institutions, or over institutions incorporated in Member States that have a “close cooperation agreement” with the ECB. On sovereignty, it was agreed that the objective of an “ever closer Union” set in the Treaty of the European Union (TEU) does not apply to the UK, therefore acknowledging that Britain is not committed to further integration. Moreover, it was agreed that a majority of 55% of national parliaments acting together can refuse the enactment of a specific EU act of secondary legislation. On competitiveness, it was stated that all Member States will work towards “better regulation” in order to “fully implement and strengthen the internal market”. Finally, on immigration, it was agreed that there will be a safeguard mechanism to restrict social benefits for immigrants in exceptional circumstances. It was also agreed that benefits can be banned for 4 years, and that child benefits from 2020 onwards will be indexed to conditions in country where child resides, in case of new migrants.

Questions regarding not only the legal nature of this agreement in face of the EU Treaties, but also to what extent does its content represent more sovereign autonomy to the UK deserve a more developed discussion. Nevertheless, the agreement was heralded as great victory by both parties. According to Cameron, this deal answers the UK’s plights regarding what was deemed as an “excessive” intromission of EU law in their home affairs. For Tusk and the Council, the deal signified the importance of maintaining the UK in the EU, in a time where the European project is facing multiple crisis. Afterwards, it was time for Cameron’s second electoral promise to be executed. The referendum on UK’s membership to the EU was scheduled for June 23rd, posing the question “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the EU or leave the EU?” The people of Britain shall now have their say.

This referendum is dividing both Britain and its Government. Although Cameron is going to campaign for the “stay”, his Minister of Home Affairs, Michael Gove, will campaign for the “leave”. Boris Johnson, mayor of London and Cameron’s party rival will also be campaigning for “Brexit”. The other leaders of the major parties in Westminster (Labour, Scottish National Party and Liberal Democrats) have so far declared their support for the UK to stay in the EU, although Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn stated he will not campaign with Cameron. In the opposite stance, vehemently calling for the UK to leave the EU are, besides UKIP, several British media. Therefore, it will be difficult to guess to which direction will the vote go.

The true extent of the effects of a possible “Brexit” is unknown, and it gives rise to three sets of preeminent questions. The first set is formal, or procedural: if the “leave” wins, does that mean a complete exit from the Treaties, or just the need to draft a new agreement granting far more sovereign autonomy to Britain? And if the “connection” is to be “cut” completely, how will this work within the legal framework of article 50 of the TEU? It will be the first time a State leaves the EU. The second set of questions is substantive and related to the first: in case of a “Brexit”, what would happen to commercial agreements that the UK is part of through the EU? It is important to note that, according to the Commission’s DG of Trade, 58,9% of UK’s exports are covered by Free Trade Agreements signed through the EU. And what would be the impact on the UK’s economy on leaving the internal market? Competitiveness regarding other EU countries and the need to sign regulatory agreements with the EU on certain areas seem likely. Finally, and more important, the third set of questions concern the political impact of “Brexit” in EU integration. It would be the first time that a Member State decides to leave the EU. This could lead to new calls from other Member States to either negotiate exits or opt-outs. Considering the current strenuous political state of affairs in the EU, with tensions and divisions between national governments concerning immigration and financial / budgetary issues, this is a reality that cannot be ignored. In this sense, it is no surprise that the Czech Prime-Minister, Bohuslav Sobotka, has already stated that the result of the British referendum could start discussions in his home country regarding a possible “Czexit”.

In sum, although the consequences of this referendum are unknown, it shall be a defining moment for the UK’s historically reluctant membership of the EU. Needless to say that the referendum shall also be crucial to the future of the EU itself. Until June the campaigns will be out to convince the British people of these questions. Depending on their vote, the second half of the year shall bring one of two things: either a further step for a“multi-speed” Europe, or the prospect of a messy and complex “divorce”. Whatever happens, one thing is for certain: the constitutional framework of the EU shall not remain the same.

Posted by Martinho Lucas Pires, NOVA University of Lisbon, School of Law

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