In the months following the United Kingdom’s Brexit referendum, the European Union seems to be undergoing an episode of post-traumatic stress. At a time when increased openness is of the utmost importance, the Continent is erecting internal barriers and isolating itself from the rest of the world.
Some of the countries that make up the EU are downplaying the common values upon which the union was built, in favour of a system that relies on barriers, protectionism and even localism. We are at risk of returning to an era of great-walls and great barriers, a Europe not of union, but of countries acting alone.
Meanwhile, despite a dire need for cooperation, the EU is neglecting to engage even its closest allies and most important partners. We are turning down opportunities to strengthen transatlantic ties and distancing ourselves from Turkey at the very moment when we most need the country and it most needs us.
These decisions seem to follow a line of thinking that holds that highly indebted countries with aging populations will be better off with fewer occasions for growth, fewer opportunities for their young people, and fewer possibilities for companies to pursue their dreams and economic incentives.
The EU cannot afford to continue on this path; if it does, it will place itself on a downward spiral of isolation and stagnation. That is why it must choose a different way forward, one built on openness and cooperation.
Seen from the outside, the U.K. looks like it is already regrouping after the initial shock of Brexit. It has confidently stated that it will remain European and act as a trustworthy ally, an outward-looking trading partner and a global power. There can be little doubt that the British government will soon be ready to start talks with Europe and the rest of the world.
It is in our collective interest that the U.K. remain close to the EU. To be sure, Britain will want a tailor-made arrangement. This is important not only for its own sake, but because whatever agreement is made could serve as a template for stronger relations with other close neighbours.
In the wake of the Brexit vote, the key issue facing the EU is how to keep close relations with non-member neighbours that share our Western political and economic values. What can the EU offer not just the U.K., but countries such as Ukraine, Moldova or Georgia? Brexit has the possibility to be not just a challenge, but an opportunity to build a new type of continental partnership along the lines of a recent proposal by the think tank Bruegel.
This partnership would be “considerably less deep than EU membership but rather closer than a simple free-trade agreement.” It would seek to deepen economic integration, but exclude the freedom of movement of workers and political integration. The bottom line should be clear: Such a partnership would not be exclusive of membership, and even Britain should one day be allowed to rejoin the EU, if it should so choose.
The Brexit vote need not necessitate a turn away from the world. It should instead provide an impetus for deeper cooperation and reform. The EU must forge ahead to finalise free-trade agreements with the United States, Canada, Ukraine and others. We also need to enhance cooperation between the EU and NATO, implementing the proposals put forth to that end by the presidents of the European Council, the European Commission, and the secretary-general of NATO.
Finally, we must not forget the importance of the Schengen area, of an EU without internal borders. Today’s migration pressure was not caused by European integration; it must not be allowed to derail it.
Re-establishing borders inside Europe will hurt our well-being and freedom and risk reversing everything achieved. We must find a way to prevent the return of internal borders, while ensuring security and providing Europeans with confidence that the situation is under control.
Migration pressures are here to stay, as the world grows ever more connected. Managing them will require the careful implementation of recent decisions, including the establishment of the European Borders and Coast Guard, the use of technology to regain control of the frontiers, and deeper engagement with countries of origin and transit.
As we navigate the post-Brexit world, we must stick to our values, maintain our promises, and improve our communication. The world needs an open, confident and prosperous Britain. Nobody will benefit if we cut ourselves off.