Brexit and New Europe

FLORENCE – All too often in politics, the choice is between the very bad and the even worse. For the residents of Central and Eastern Europe, the June referendum in the United Kingdom over whether Britain should exit the European Union is just such a case.

A British exit (“Brexit”) would impose immense economic costs on the EU’s Central and Eastern European (CEE) member states. Migratory restrictions would become tighter, and trade opportunities and foreign direct investment would plummet. But a victory by those who want the UK to stay in the EU could be even more costly for CEE countries, where it could strengthen illiberal politicians, shore-up rent-seeking alliances, and strip citizens of much of their say in key EU-level decisions.

The relationship between the CEE countries and the UK has always been somewhat fraught. In the 1990s, the UK was a proponent of EU membership for CEE countries at a time when leaders in France and Germany were still very hesitant about EU enlargement. But UK support had a catch: British leaders, reluctant to accept the EU’s long-stated goal of an “ever-closer union” – which implies political unification and shared national and federal sovereignty – made no secret of their desire to use the widening of EU membership to prevent the deepening of European integration.

During the negotiations with EU leaders ahead of the referendum, British Prime Minister David Cameron obtained an opt-out clause in the case of a decision to move toward ever-closer union. Should he prevail in the referendum and convince voters to stay, it will send a dangerous signal to illiberal politicians in Eastern Europe. They will conclude that they can have it both ways, keeping the benefits of economic integration without losing their ability to infringe on their citizens’ rights or use EU financial transfers to build patron-client relations and reinforce their hold over the state.