Five years on, how has Brexit changed Europe?

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By Shona Murray
A British Union flag from Brexit day celebrations lies in the grass in front of the Palace of Westminster in London, early Saturday, Feb. 1, 2020.
A British Union flag from Brexit day celebrations lies in the grass in front of the Palace of Westminster in London, early Saturday, Feb. 1, 2020.   -  Copyright  Alastair Grant/Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved

Five years since the UK’s shock decision to leave the European Union, Brexit continues to dominate politics in Brussels.

Euronews' Shona Murray spoke to Professor Brigid Laffan from the European University Institute and Professor Niall Ferguson to discuss what Brexit means for the future of Europe.

To watch the full interviews, click on the media player above.

What will the implications of Brexit be in 20 or 30 years' time? Will it be seen as a defining moment for the EU and Britain?

Professor Brigid Laffan: When Brexit happened – the vote – it was a shock. There was worry that there would be a domino effect. There was worry that this was the beginning of the end [...] that the UK departure would sow division in Europe. And that's not what has happened. In fact, the EU has been very united, very consistent in how it's handled Brexit and is determined to continue.

From an EU point of view, Brexit is a loss. It would be much better for the EU if the UK was a member state. But given the choice of the UK to leave, that is respected, but it will not be allowed to impact long term on where the EU goes.

It has in fact made it more difficult for what I would call the hard eurosceptics across Europe, because suddenly even Marine Le Pen is not arguing for French exit, or Salvini is not arguing for Italy to leave the euro.

So I think in the long term, yes, it is a loss. It is a geopolitical loss. It means the EU has to handle an unruly neighbour. But will it actually act as a brake on the European project or what the 27 or a larger EU decides to do? I don’t think so.

Would you see an independent Scotland easily being accepted as an EU member state?

Laffan: I think it would be complicated, as [it] always [is], enlargement. But they meet the criteria. They are pro-European and I think they would join with relative ease.

But, for example, the Spanish government wouldn't necessarily object if a referendum was a legitimate one?

Laffan: No, I don't think the Spanish government can, because the only way Scotland re-enters the EU is as an independent state. It's not like Catalonia, which Madrid is determined will not be independent. So I think there is no way that Spain could legitimately veto Scottish membership of the EU.

Brexit has made it more difficult for the hard eurosceptics across Europe. Even Marine Le Pen is not arguing for French exit.
Brigid Laffan
Director of the Robert Schuman Centre, European University Institute

Will Brexit be regarded as a historic event?

Professor Niall Ferguson: Of course it will. After all, to turn away after 50 years from the European project was a major shift in the trajectory of British politics.

But I think the greater significance of Brexit lies in the fact that it removes from the remaining 27 members one of the major obstacles to further integration, which was the UK.

Remember, the UK of all member states was the most resistant to fiscal integration, to greater shifts in the direction of a federal Europe.

But after that, what is a Brexit dividend for the UK?

Ferguson: Well, I think that's the kind of question that I was asking back in 2016 because you're not going to tell me that a free trade deal with Australia is a substitute for full membership of the single market and the customs union. I think the key issue is the one that Dominic Cummings raised prior to his political downfall: could the UK take advantage of its having left the EU to reinvent its own public sector?

One of the things that was curious about the debate on Brexit was, I think, a failure in the wider public to realise how many of the things they found frustrating about British bureaucracy were British rather than European.

When I was arguing against Brexit back in 2016, I said often in a divorce, people think that they're going to solve their problems by splitting up.

But then they discover that many of the things that they thought were problems associated with the marriage are actually problems personal to them. And I think many of Britain's problems, particularly the dysfunctional way in which Whitehall works – something Dominic Cummings has complained about for many years – are very much still there, and don't get solved by Brexit.

I think the message was delivered loud and clear by Joe Biden in Cornwall that there's really no sympathy in the United States for any attempt by the UK to renege on the Northern Ireland protocol.
Niall Ferguson
Professor and historian

Brexit also has to prove it is not a threat to the security and peace of Northern Ireland. Yet there is this ongoing dispute over the Northern Ireland protocol that was negotiated painstakingly, taking into account the Good Friday Agreement.

Everybody spelt out what it would require – checks down the Irish Sea – and yet the British government is refusing to implement that.

What do you think the UK and the EU should be doing to break this impasse?

Ferguson: Well, it's very difficult to offer a quick fix to that. It was always going to be a very, very tricky problem to which there wouldn't be a solution that satisfied all sides. I think the message was delivered loud and clear by Joe Biden in Cornwall that there's really no sympathy in the United States for any attempt by the UK to renege on the Northern Ireland protocol.

So my sense is that we should think of this rather in the same way as we think about Switzerland's relationship with the EU. And I think this analogy is much more helpful than any of the other ones that have been trotted out over the past five years.

I suppose the imminence is that we're talking about the threat of a return to violence, a very serious threat.

Ferguson: Well, Boris Johnson is the latest in a long succession of British politicians who, having spent almost their entire lives in England, don't understand the Northern Irish problem very well. And at some point, they usually get a rather hard education. And this is what we're seeing happen now.

I think from Boris Johnson's point of view, Brexit is the gift that keeps on giving. From his point of view, it's what got him to the top of the greasy pole. He took that risk back in 2016 by defecting from David Cameron's government. And it's only worked for him. And he's noticed – and this is really important – that what plays well in the north of England guarantees his continuing position of dominance.

As long as that's the case, Boris is not going to mind if he stirs the pot and causes feathers to fly in Northern Ireland, because politically it's much, much less important to him.

This is risk-taking, as you rightly imply. It could lead to some resumption of the troubles that we all remember with a heavy heart.

Journalist • Shona Murray