Looking Out: Europe moved on

Ever since the Brexit referendum that ended with a small leave victory, the British public and media have been talking about the monumental decision: Brexit, Brexit, Brexit. There are so many moving parts to talk about: the opinions of different parties and politicians, the disagreements in the Tory cabinet on the extent of Brexit and how it would affect practical life for the millions of Europeans in the UK and millions of Brits in the EU. The discussions range from pet passports allowing freedom of movement for dogs to nuclear waste removal. There is truly a lot to discuss.

The mass media hysteria has so far only stopped for the tragedy of Grenfell Tower, where a large public housing structure fire led to multiple deaths due to a lack of government accountability. Even during the general election, which Prime Minister Theresa May called to strengthen her hand in Brexit negotiations, the media acted as if the election was just about Brexit.

These days, the British media is still discussing soft or hard Brexit, the Irish border, transitional periods and the Norway model. This is not unexpected: Brexit is perhaps the single most consequential event to occur in Britain in decades. However, the other side of the negotiating table, the European Union, has moved on. The EU still mentions Brexit, and its negotiator, Michel Barnier, is of course singularly focused on the subject to make sure that all EU interests are taken care of. But European leaders have started talking about other EU issues, operating under the assumption that Britain is gone.

The EU agenda has moved on from the Brexit referendum of 2015 and has shifted to deeper integration. There are discussions of a multi-speed Europe headed by French President Emmanuel Macron, increased digital cooperation headed by the Council of EU President Estonia, plans to make a stronger EU presidency by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, a stronger combined security and foreign policy apparatus, on the list goes. Brexit is all but a small bullet point toward the end, taken care of by Barnier and not receiving attention from the high-up leaders of the EU structure.

This agenda change could annoy some in Britain, who view themselves as critically important to Europe, but the fact is that has never been the case. Britain has been the single biggest obstacle to deeper integration. As one of the largest EU countries and economies, it held considerable sway and was always opposed to stronger ties, making “federation” an unspeakable word for the EU. Britain, though in the EU, never joined the currency union of the euro or the visa union of the Schengen Area, nor did it ever want to go further with its bonds to the continent. So many staunch Europeanists saw this as an opportunity: a strong impediment was gone and now the EU could be stronger and closer. If Britain does decide after all on an unending transition period, soft Brexit or the Norway model, it can expect to be forced to adjust to the status quo of a further integrated EU, where “federation” is not taboo.