On Friday June 24th Europeans awoke to sad news. It was not just that the Leave campaign had succeeded, but also it became apparent that many Leave voters were astonished and oblivious about the possible consequences of their decision, made evident by a sudden surge in internet searches asking what the the EU even was. 1 It was not even really the Leave campaign leader’s admission that one of the main slogans was a “mistake”. 2 The most discomforting aspect was the realization of how quickly something that took decades to build could break apart.
This is not the time to mock Britons for irresponsibly voting for something and then only later researching the consequences on Google. Although, they’ll hopefully forgive that a number of us are therapeutically re-watching our favorite segments from Yes Minister & Monty Python.
Nor is this a time for crying about further potential blows to the European project from those radicals who rejoiced at the UK results, and are now fishing for a Frexit or Czexit.
The British vote and the aftermath should not come as a catharsis to those in the Eastern EU, who have felt cornered by renewed east-west divisions in the wake of refugee crisis. And the Visegrad, especially, should not feel a sense of relief that someone else will now be blamed for breaking up the Union. While some of the recent Western European claims that the 2004 enlargement was a mistake, clearly went over the top, the Visegrad has urgent homework here.
It’s because “anti-Brusselism,” or blaming domestic policy failures on “Brussels bureaucrats,” a tactic that played a role in the British campaign, is also a convenient tool for political mobilization in Bratislava, Budapest, Prague and Warsaw. A case in point: in the first interviews given by Slovak PM Fico, who’ll soon preside over the EU Council, he did not blame the referendum result on the campaign or on flawed domestic policies, but on British citizens’ dissatisfaction with bad “Union” policies. 3
While all four capitals are otherwise interested in deeper European integration, a number of their representatives keep forgetting that throwing mud at Brussels will only have two outcomes – either people will stop trusting them or the EU project.
Anti-Brusselism is a bluff and does not pay off – certainly not for those who live in Europe and want to ensure that it is a safe and prosperous place both for citizens and neighbors.
The EU has a long list of imperfections, but those will not be fixed spontaneously; after all it’s the member states’ job. For the V4 this means thinking twice about what type of inspiration they take away from this British experiment. The easy road might be to demand more “national exceptions”. Changing their domestic EU discourses might sound less appealing, but eventually it will be the path that delivers. One can hardly expect Czechs, Hungarians, Poles or Slovaks to be convinced Europeans, if so many of their politicians have invested so much into highlighting the defects of working together, and so few into showing the benefits.