GMF’s Brussels Forum: Brexit and What It Means Going Forward

A Young Transatlantic Network Response Essay

By: Michelle Shevin-Coetzee, Young Transatlantic Network — Washington Chapter

One of the greatest benefits of technology is the ability to live-stream what were once closed-door discussions among senior level academics and policymakers. From the comfort of my Washington cubicle, I was transported to Brussels, watching the at times intense debate on “Brexit and the Implications for Europe.” Moderated by Ryan Heath, it featured former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt and current British Member of Parliament Douglas Carswell.

It is hard to find two more diametrically opposed individuals: one, Bildt, a strong proponent of the EU, the other, Carswell, an ardent supporter of Brexit. To use Heath’s terminology, one is filled with “grief,” the other with “euphoria.” As someone interested in European security, I watched this interplay with a particular focus on what Brexit means for the future U.K.-EU defense relationship. Three questions came to mind.

First, in the absence of EU membership, how will the U.K. step up its contributions to NATO? Carswell argued that Britain should pursue a “liberal Brexit,” in which it leaves the EU, not Europe. The importance of NATO, he asserted, has “cross-party consensus” and the U.K. “will remain committed” to its obligations. But what does this mean in practice? Perhaps the U.K. will raise defense spending further, allocating more than two percent of its GDP toward its military. Or maybe it will take on a greater political role within the alliance — an initiative that seems to be growing likely as rumors swirl of a potential David Cameron nomination to be NATO’s next Secretary General. Overall, though, it matters less which path the U.K. takes and more how it augments its already strong NATO presence. The worst outcome for London would be issuing empty rhetoric.

Second, what will happen to the U.K.’s nuclear deterrent if Scotland gains independence? One audience member raised a question about an independent Scotland’s EU membership, which exposed yet another divergence between the panelists. Carswell reiterated his belief in “small countries being independent,” seemingly unperturbed by a Britain no longer united. On the other hand, Bildt retorted that “I’m not a break-upper of anything.” But I wish the panelists had discussed the defense implications of a potentially independent Scotland and what that would mean for Europe more broadly. Yes, this is hypothetical because London has not granted permission to Edinburgh to hold a second independence referendum in the first place. However, the British government cannot afford to overlook the possibility that Scotland could in fact leave the U.K., placing its nuclear deterrent into question.

Finally, more broadly, what lessons can the EU learn from how the U.K. conducted the Brexit referendum? Bildt and Carswell discussed the economic and, to a lesser degree, security effects of the UK’s decision to leave the EU. Bildt suggested that the greatest loss is that the UK “leaves the room,” whereas Carswell stressed that Brexit is a preemptive “safety valve” against populism. These perspectives are crucial, but the EU also needs to draw lessons from the arguments and tactics that resonated with British citizens to vote for Brexit. 2017 is a particularly important year for Europe as citizens across the continent head to the polls. With French elections beginning this month, in particular, the EU cannot take for granted that Brexit will be a one-off event. As a hedge against other potential in/out referendums, Brussels must examine the British experience to prepare new arguments in support of the EU. Such a variation on the Brexit discussion might be difficult to have politically, but I hope behind some closed-door in Brussels — one probably not live-streamed — that European leaders are examining this issue.

For more on GMF’s Brussels Forum, check out for all of the session videos, transcripts, blog posts, and more.

The ideas expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.

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