Will the hope of the EU-idealist die with Brexit?
It was midnight on June 23, 2013 when Croatia officially became the 28th member of the European Union (EU). Joining the political alliance was seen by some Croatians with more than just a hint of idealism- that fateful night six years ago was recognized as an almost sacred validation of the country’s legitimacy in the international sphere.
The Croatian president at the time, Ivo Josipović, said about the event: “This is the day when our dreams came true, not only of this generation but of the many prior generations of our people; the day we created a foundation for a safe, democratic and Europe-wide future of our new generations.”
Three years later, after the UK’s referendum to leave the EU, dubbed “Brexit,” the discourse surrounding the political alliance has become sharply focused on the future of the UK. Any sense of idealism among other EU members, including Croatia, has been left dead.
As a country where conflict is close and persistent corruption is even closer, some Croatians believed that the EU was finally going to elevate Croatia—not just from its past but also from its present. The hope was that it would raise the low Croatian economic standard which, over the last few years, has pushed a third and a half of its entire population to emigrate. But while the EU may impose higher standards, it will—and has—struggled to change the country’s core mentality.
The idealism held by Croatia toward its EU membership may have been just that—a glorification of the union’s capabilities to extinguish political and economic corruption in a country that was raised on those two things. It was Brexit that changed the discourse from idealism to Euroscepticism.
Euroscepticism thrives in the less-economically stable countries within the EU. According to the Eurobarometer indicator, among the more Eurosceptic nations listed are the Czech Republic, Italy, Croatia, Greece and Romania. Less than half of these countries’ populations believe EU membership will benefit their country.
The rise in Euroscepticism cannot be fully attributed to Brexit, but the movement has reinforced the creation of a narrative that shifts the blame for a country’s issues onto a power that seems more alienable, less personal, and further away—the EU. In other words, it allows member states that have not flourished under EU membership to have a scapegoat for their failures.
Research by Associate Professor Thiemo Fetzer at Warwick University supports the idea of blame-shifting and directly links austerity policies with Britain voting to leave the EU. This is a sentiment felt almost too keenly by the countries listed above. Croatia may have idealised the possibility for fundamental changes to its economy and ideology; yet when those changes did not come, it has become easier to find a scapegoat to blame than to face the institutionalised reasons for lack of change.
In comparison, the above Eurobarometer indicator study shows that countries where Euroscepticism is the lowest are also countries that boast the highest gross domestic product per capita and political stability. Luxembourg, Ireland, Germany, Sweden and Denmark all have populations that mainly harbor positive views of the EU. Between 75 to 87 percent of these populations recognize their EU membership positively.
Interestingly enough, cities within these pro-EU countries continue to profit off the economic instability forged by Brexit. Various industry businesses have been abandoning London, soon to be excluded from the EU marketplace, for other EU cities like Dublin and Frankfurt. The biggest industries in the UK all fear the losses their businesses could suffer because of Brexit.
And how could they not? With less than a month to spare, with or without Euroscepticism, the Brexit negotiations in the UK portray anything but strength and stability. As a whole, Brexit was promoted as an opportunity to take back control and sovereignty over economic decisions, yet the process of negotiation has not been an exercise in control. It is more likely by the day that the negotiation time frame for Brexit will have to be extended.
Prime Minister Theresa May has struggled to ensure that the UK does not leave without a deal. But after her Brexit proposal was voted down for the second time on March 12, the departure date has been pushed back as the UK parliament struggles to come to an agreement on how they will leave the union. If no deal is made, the UK will have to come up with a new plan or leave the EU without a treaty.
Meanwhile, smaller EU countries such as Croatia are seemingly miles away from the Brexit negotiations. There are very few Croatian immigrants living in the UK; there is no prominent trade between the two countries; Croatian cities are hardly of interest to industries looking to establish new strongholds within the EU. There is a degree of nonchalance about the deal from the side of some Croatian politicians since, in many ways, Brexit is seen as the UK’s problem.
According to a survey run by the LSE European Institute, only about 12 percent of the remaining EU27 member states support an approach that would accommodate many of the UK’s demands.
Yet, despite the UK’s struggle to reassert its dominance in the Brexit negotiations, it still represents the loss of the EU’s second strongest economy. In reality, a no-deal Brexit should not just be feared by the UK but by every EU state member, from Germany to Croatia, as it would likely drag them all into recession. And this would potentially deepen the loss of pro-EU idealism.
As Brexit’s official enactment date approaches tomorrow, March 29 (despite extensions), the survival of pro-EU idealism will rely on the lessons that Brexit will bring. That, in itself, is a double-edged sword. If Brexit results in economic instability in the UK, the economic consequences for the EU27 may fuel Euroscepticism. If the UK successfully navigates their leave, it will serve as proof to the growing Eurosceptic population that pro-EU idealism has no part in their future.
Either way, in the less affluent of the member states, those sentiments will likely continue to dwindle, only felt by a minority of truly hopeful individuals.