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David Thunder, researcher Ramón y Cajal of Institute for Culture and Society and professor at the University of Navarra.

'Brexit': an inspiration for secessionists in Europe?

We have learned that past political trends and attitudes are not necessarily reliable predictors of future change.

Fri, 28 Feb 2020 10:20:00 +0000 Published in El Diario Montañés, Ideal de Jaén, Ideal de Almería, El Norte de Castilla and Hoy Extremadura.

In the coming months, one would expect European Union (EU) leaders to promote the narrative that the Union can do without Britain and that, after some budgetary adjustments, the waters will return to normal. But Brexit is certainly a thorn in the side and is likely to remain so for some considerable time to come.

Brexit represents a serious threat to European integration, for more intangible and insidious reasons than the mere reduction in the size of the common market. The 'brexit' represents a great symbolic victory for nationalist populism: it sets a spectacular precedent for the emerging Eurosceptic movements in other countries of the Union. If the European Union were solidly united under a more or less consensual and well-defined political project , the 'brexit' would pose less of a threat to its future stability. But the shock comes in the midst of a serious internal crisis of political cohesion, which is vividly reflected in a tension between two very different visions of European integration.

On the one hand, there is the idea that Europe is a league of independent nations cooperating mainly on economic issues - the subject vision supported by Brexit supporters such as Nigel Farage. On the other is the notion of a consolidated political union with a common foreign policy, a European army and greater fiscal powers - the position of French President Emmanuel Macron.

This political impasse cannot be resolved until European leaders and public intellectuals articulate a coherent vision of European integration, identity and values that can win the hearts and minds of the majority of European citizens.

This has not happened to date, so EU legislators and statesmen remain stuck in a sterile tug-of-war between the relatively modest ideal of a union of sovereign nations and the more ambitious ideal of a United States of Europe of plenary session of the Executive Council right.

EU leaders such as Macron and Merkel want a more economically and socially integrated Europe, but their integrationist ambitions are being held back by the rise of nationalist and anti-establishment sentiment, in part driven by concerns about immigration in several member states such as Italy, Hungary, Austria and Sweden.

The choice facing EU leaders and policymakers is clear: do they scale back their integrationist ambitions for Europe, hoping to keep secessionist movements at bay, or do they press ahead with centralized reforms, standing up to the Eurosceptic parties, which remain in the minority?

At first glance, the latter does not seem a bad bet, given that much of the nationalist movements have remained in an electoral minority and, apart from Britain, none has translated into a serious secessionist movement.

But appearances can be deceiving. In an era of high volatility in voter sentiments and significant political realignments (just think of Trump, Brexit and the 2020 elections in Ireland), it would be naïve to think that a secessionist movement cannot take root and flourish in some other Member State, encouraged by the example of Brexit and the voter discontent that could be expected in the event of, say, a global recession.

Although 'brexit' was - at best - a remote possibility a decade ago, it came to fruition after a well-targeted populist campaign that portrayed the European Union as a distant and almost tyrannical elite. The success of that campaign demonstrates the potential appeal of the intensely populist, nationalist and anti-establishment speech to whip up secession.

It is true that levels of skepticism towards the EU have historically been higher in Britain than in other member states. However, if we have learned anything from recent events, it is that past political trends and attitudes are not necessarily reliable predictors of future changes in political culture and sentiment.

For now, Euroskepticism does not have enough momentum to derail the European project . In the 2019 European elections, populist and nationalist parties, including British MEPs, won only a third of the seats in the European Parliament.

However, with just one more member state successfully invoking its right to secede under article 50 of the Treaty on European Union, a domino effect can be created. This can generate political and cultural momentum for other countries to jump ship as well, particularly if the seceding economies fare better than expected.

Defenders of the European status quo are probably hoping that the British will not fare too well after 'brexit'. That could send the wrong message to embryonic secessionist movements in other member states. Secessionist sentiment, once it becomes respectable, can be difficult to contain.