Following a decisive vote (358 to 234) in favour of the EU Withdrawal Agreement Bill on 20 December 2019, Boris Johnson’s pledge to ‘get Brexit done’ has manifested itself into a reality. However, rather than looking at this turn out of events, and the purported inevitability of the British Exit (Brexit), as an inherently negative outcome for Ukraine, it is also possible to shift one’s perspective on the issue and approach Brexit with a semblance of cautious optimism. This is because the Brexit process, first and foremost, puts into question the type of partnership the EU might (or is willing to) have with third countries, which not only allows the EU to redefine its partnership models vis-à-vis third countries but also to reconsider its model of integration for aspiring states.
Of course, Brexit is a tragic phenomenon for both the EU and Ukraine, for it is the first time, in the history of European integration and expansion, that a Member State decided to say no to the European project (excluding colonial territories that opted out after gaining independence). This, in terms, poses multiple implications including the shrinkage of collective EU forces, economic repercussions following a state that is exiting the largest single market in the world, but it also puts into question the future of the idea of collective European identity – an identity to which Ukraine aspires to. In this case, Brexit should not be looked at as a positive phenomenon for Ukraine, yet at the same time, given that the process has become, for the most part, inevitable, one might as well consider the opportunities that this inevitability presents.
In order to understand these opportunities, it would be wise to start with the Brexit deal or the UK Withdrawal Agreement itself. It is important to note that the Withdrawal Agreement, negotiated by May and then Johnson, isn’t some fully comprehensive agreement that lays out the full nature of EU-UK relations post-Brexit. This agreement is simply a framework for the fostering of such discussion on what the real EU-UK deal should look like when it is going to be conceived of in the ‘transition’ period once the UK leaves. In essence, the purpose of the framework agreement is to first have the UK leave the customs union and then as a third country to the EU, start negotiations on the actual EU-UK partnership model that suits both actors.
In this case, with the UK gone from the customs union, the position that the UK will find itself in, vis-à-vis negotiating a deal with the EU, will be a position closely resembling that of Ukraine (another third country to the EU) as opposed to an EU Member State. However, given that the UK would be an ex-Member State, the post-Brexit partnership that the UK might like to have with the EU might not be fully representative of the already existing models of partnership the EU has at its disposal.
For instance, on multiple occasions, the UK has expressed a desire to have a privileged relationship with the EU in terms of security and defence in a post-Brexit environment. This might include participation in the Common Defense and Security Policy (CSDP) decision-making, as well as certain European Defence Fund (EDF) and Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) projects, projects that would be traditionally available only to the Member States.
Such a model of partnership would be beneficial for the EU, because the UK is (until January 2020), after all, responsible for the largest chunk of total EU military assets, possessing Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities, five global military headquarters, an extensive diplomatic network, as well as being one of the two Member States (the other being France) that is both nuclear power and a permanent member of the UN Security Council. These assets are desirable for the EU as a means of retaining a similar level of hard power projection it had before Brexit. At the same time, the model is also beneficial for the UK, because the UK would still be able to exert influence over EU affairs via being part of EU decision-making processes.
At the same time, such a model might pose a problem because by allowing the UK to seek a privileged partnership with the EU, there would be little disincentive stopping other closely engaged partners, such as Norway and Turkey, to also seek closer cooperation with the EU on the common ground that all three countries are third parties to the Union. In this case, any upgrades to the UK model of partnership might result in other closely engaged third countries to also seek an improved form of partnership (and I doubt that remodelling partnerships with multiple countries are something that the EU would like to look forward to).
In this case, on the one hand, there is a problem associated with allowing the UK to retain some of its membership statuses without other states asking for similar privileges, yet on the other hand, the UK is a very good addition to common EU defence. Consequently, in order to resolve such a situation, the EU can opt for a different strategy – rather than prioritizing one country over the others, the EU might opt for a more neo-functionalist “à la carte” approach to third-country participation in EU security and defence policy, which leads to a scalable, meritocracy-based approach for third-countries wanting to cooperate on issues of security and defence. This approach will entail a more scalable CSDP partnership for third countries, where cooperation is intensified proportionally to the level of the country’s contribution and added value. In which case, the degree to which the UK is able to contribute to the CSDP will result in a proportionate level of cooperation, but this approach also means that other countries, like Ukraine, have the potential of seeking closer cooperation with the EU in this area as well.
Perhaps, what is most important to note is that whatever deal the UK pursues with the EU, it will surely redefine third-country cooperation with the EU in one way or another. Even on a larger scale, events such as Brexit, the rise of Euroscepticism, illiberalism in Hungary and Poland etc., have made the Union redefine and reconsider certain aspects of expansion, integration and the Rule of Law, and perhaps, even broadly, made the Union reflect upon the direction it is heading in right now. For instance, on the one hand, there might be greater reluctance on part of Member States to commit to further integration, yet on the other hand, such reluctance might be transformed into a more modern and efficient system of both partnerships and models of ascension.
A good example of this is French President Emmanuel Macron’s seven-step proposal for future enlargements, following the French block of Albanian and North Macedonian ascension talks in early November 2019. The proposal outlines that an aspiring state should join the Union on a step-by-step basis, entering different EU sectors in a hierarchical order, while gradually committing to reforms that allow it to progress to full ascension. Such a model would greatly benefit Ukraine and further, incentivize internal reforms in Ukraine with the prospect of EU benefits along the way.
In conclusion, Brexit is just a part of a broader picture of the changing nature of the European Union. This changing nature might pose challenges for the prospect of Ukrainian ascension, but, at the same time, it opens up opportunities for Ukraine for closer cooperation and association with the EU. In the end, despite the fact that Brexit is laced with uncertainty, one thing is certain, and that is that the European Union will not be the same after the British exit, and the unfolding of the EU-UK negotiations, as well as progress in the Albanian and North Macedonian ascension talks, will come to define EU integration.
Opinion piece by Artem Kyzym