In 2016, when the British people voted to leave the European Union, it was expected that Brexit may embolden other disaffected EU members to follow suit and withdraw from the bloc. Nonetheless, after nearly two years and a half since the Brexit referendum, the British government has been struggling to get a deal to satisfy both the EU and the British MPs; the “Domino Effect” hasn’t materialized as anticipated. Economic reason, public opinion, geopolitical consequence and torturing Brexit process itself might help explain why “Polexit” or “Hunxit” didn’t follow “Brexit” amid revived nationalism across the continent.
Firstly, the EU can easily leverage its economic coercive measures to strangle the rebellious moves of the populist governments. Poland is expected to receive EUR 86 billion from European Structural and Investment (ESI) fund during 2014-2020 and will remain the largest single recipient even if the budget for Poland will be cut to EUR 64.4 billion in the next seven-year timeframe. The Polish government is counting on EU funds to create jobs, improve business competitiveness and deliver economic growth. This might be the reason why Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the leader of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party, was reluctant to link possible “Polexit” with Poland-EU judicial spat over Poland’s disputed constitutional overhaul. Likewise, Hungary, as one of the largest beneficiaries of ESI funds, will receive EUR 25 billion from 2014 to 2020 to boost infrastructure investment, which may also explain why the populist government, in spite of recurring clashes with the EU, is unwilling to leave the union.
Secondly, public opinions in these countries may clearly say “no” to possible EU exit. In Poland, 87% of Poles believe that they are benefiting as the country remains a member of the EU, much higher than average EU countries of 62%. Similarly, 60% of Hungarians view the EU positively and 79% hold that the EU membership is rewarding. Therefore, it would not be accurate to equate tensions between Warsaw or Budapest and Brussels over specific policies or values with their potential EU withdrawal.
Thirdly, the disadvantageous geographical locations may prevent these countries from going afar because they don’t have the geopolitical assets of the UK to help buffer potential risks from EU exit. In contrast to Great Britain, which has been historically separated from the European continent, central and eastern European countries have been a natural part of Europe. Therefore, compared to the geopolitical impact of Brexit on the UK, the shock would be more profound for Poland and Hungary if they exit from the EU someday. While Poland would be vulnerable to Russian political and economic influence, towards which it has centuries of animosity; Hungary may be left helplessly isolated and surrounded by other EU members.
Most importantly, the grueling Brexit negotiations may discourage nationalist leaders from going for a referendum. When the European Union leaders issued the joint statement in a response to a “Leave” result of the Brexit referendum they were not only sending a clear warning to the UK. The painful process and prolonged uncertainty facing Britain were designed to function as a signal to other restless member states. As the deadline is nearing, Brexit is heading towards a dead end. To avoid “no-deal” Brexit, an economic disaster, the UK may resort to the only option that could lead a way out: the Second Referendum, which is maybe what the EU leaders wanted from the very beginning.
In addition, negotiating a withdrawal deal is an exhausting but unrewarding job. British Prime Minister Theresa May got used to being humiliated at home in Westminster and abroad in Brussels. When she finally brought home a signed deal, she was censured across the political spectrum. The hardline Brexiters within her conservative party criticized it for subjecting the UK to EU agenda in terms of freedom of movement, “no hard border” with Ireland, and EU court jurisdiction, while the leftist Labor Party lambasted it for being “vague or blind deal” without details on “customs union”, “workers’ rights” and “immigration”. PM May survived a party leadership crisis, postponed the parliamentary vote and went back to Brussels seeking EU concessions, only to be rebuffed by EU leaders. As the People’s Vote campaign gains steam even Nigel Farage, one of the most fervent Brexit advocate and former leader of UK Independent Party (UKIP), is telling the Leavers to prepare for the second referendum.
Anyway, regardless of whether it would be “no deal” Brexit or “Remain” within the EU by a second referendum, if the Brexit process has any effect on those incumbent nationalist leaders in EU members like Poland and Hungary, it is the dampening of their attempt to play with fire and defy the EU. Although both of the governments in Warsaw and Budapest have shown hostility towards the EU, none of them currently have the courage to flirt with this dangerous referendum idea.
Image Credit: Bloomberg
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