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EU will likely unite to avoid catching the UK’s Brexit fever

(L-R) French President Francois Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Italy's Prime Minister Matteo Renzi address a press conference ahead of talks following the Brexit referendum at the chancellery in Berlin, on June 27, 2016.
John MacDougall | AFP | Getty Images
(L-R) French President Francois Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Italy's Prime Minister Matteo Renzi address a press conference ahead of talks following the Brexit referendum at the chancellery in Berlin, on June 27, 2016.

The British people have decided in a national referendum that they no longer want to be part of the European Union. Somewhere in Russia, President Vladimir Putin is chortling as far right groups in Europe take heart from the British example. There is potential for these groups to further organize and take action. On the other side of the Atlantic, will Donald Trump's followers see Brexit as validation of the need to change the structure and priorities of the American government? Perhaps a look at the U.K.'s occasionally fraught relationship with Europe will shed some light not only on the reasons Brits voted leave, but also on how similar popular sentiment will play out in the U.S.

For centuries, it was British policy to prevent the continental European powers from combining against her. She did it by temporary alliances, by war, and, for the last five decades, through a unique constitutional experiment: the European Union. Britain decided to pool sovereignty with the U.K.'s continental neighbors for the sake of peace, prosperity, power and influence.

The EU single market of 500 million people is the largest trade bloc in the world. The EU allows its members collectively to punch above their national weight in trade and foreign policy negotiations. It admits to membership-only countries that are true democracies, and it seeks to be a soft power force for good in the world.


"The rest of the EU will seek to unite, not least because their leaders face and fear similar, and often more dangerous, nationalist tendencies in their own countries."

At the heart of the leave campaign has been the issue of taking control. For the over-65s, who voted by overwhelming majority to leave, regaining at least the illusion of the country of their youth, no matter how impoverished it was in reality, counted for more than the growth in jobs and prosperity that Britain has enjoyed since EU membership and Margaret Thatcher. The freedom of movement that EU citizens enjoy within the union has brought some two million migrants, mostly from Eastern and Central Europe, to Britain since 2004. Regaining control (in principle at least) over migration (half of which actually comes from non-EU countries) was the leave campaign's trump card, despite the positive contribution those migrants have made to the economy.

It is not unlike the message we are hearing across the Atlantic from Donald Trump, whose main rallying cry is "Make America Great Again." The slogan is accompanied by his proposals to build a wall along the Mexican border with the U.S., and his plan to temporarily ban all Muslims from entering the country. Two sovereign nations may be sharing one common message: Do not let the facts and figures distract you, putting your country ahead of international cooperation will bring us back to better times.

The weakness of the euro-zone economies also gave room for the argument that the U.K. would be but the first rat to desert the sinking EU ship. The reality may be colder and harsher than the leave campaigners have admitted.

The rest of the EU will seek to unite, not least because their leaders face and fear similar, and often more dangerous, nationalist tendencies in their own countries. They will want to demonstrate that quitting does not pay. And they hold the cards. The British prime minister, whoever he or she may then be, has two years under legally binding treaty obligations in which to negotiate the terms of Britain's exit and the basis of a new trading and political relationship with our erstwhile partners. Two years is too short to dismantle more than 40 years in which laws made in common with 27 other countries must be untangled and new, different ones, at national level, put in their place. The period can be extended — but only if all the 27 other EU nations agree. Cue for some bargaining leverage from even the smallest among them. At the end of the process, the 27 EU governments will vote on the acceptability of any deal. The UK has no vote.

One of the main arguments of the leave campaign was that, in a global world, trading-bloc Europe was old hat. But nearly 50 percent of the U.K.'s trade is with the rest of the EU and the predominance of the City of London in financial services depends on unfettered access to trade within the euro zone. Continued access will come at a price and Frankfurt and Paris will be competing for the business. Inside the EU, the U.K. helps to both set the rules and to police them. Outside, Britain will have no voice and no vote.

For some years, at least, the United States will find itself allied to a Britain that, having lost an empire and found one role – inside the EU – will now be struggling to find yet another role – outside it. Political turmoil may split the ruling Conservative Party. The U.K. will struggle to reassert the market access which EU membership has given it until now. Scotland, which voted to remain in the EU, may again seek a referendum on independence. Britain is likely to be fractured, fractious and introspective. A similar fate may await the U.S. if Trump and his supporters rally and move forward with plans to renegotiate international trade deals.

Little England has trumped Great Britain. The November election will determine if the U.S. awaits a similar fate.

Commentary by Sir Stephen Wall, the former U.K. permanent representative (ambassador) to the European Union and former EU advisor to U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair. He is currently the chief advisor on Europe at Portland, a political-consulting and public-relations firm. Follow him on Twitter @stephenwall34.

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