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24th March 2021

Book in Focus

The European Integration Crisis

An Economic Analysis

An ‘Eastern’ Outlook on Brexit in the European Integration Context

By Marek Loužek and Luboš Smrčka

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has recently overshadowed the issue of Brexit in the eyes of the European public, and understandably so. Since the ravages of the so-called Spanish Flu pandemic towards the end of the Great War, Europe has arguably never faced a more severe health shock. Brexit, on the other hand, despite being a fundamental issue, clearly cannot compete in the newspaper headlines and breaking news race.

In practice, of course, pandemics tend to be transitory in nature. One may recall the likes of the recent H5N1 bird flu, SARS, MERS, H1N1 influenza, and some other diseases. Today, only experts would be able to put these once so formidable threats correctly in order of the chronology and geographical location in which they occurred. Without even the slightest hint of any disrespect for the millions of COVID-19 victims, and despite fully recognizing the immense scope of the damage and severe societal effects brought about by the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak, Brexit will eventually result in a much greater long-run impact, which, without exaggeration, will influence both the United Kingdom and continental Europe for decades to come.

The risk brought by COVID-19 into European society, while new and deadly, is nevertheless an external one. The pandemic has shone a light onto our globalized world weakness and vulnerability. It has involved billion-dollar damages and the painful loss of so many lives. However, it has undermined neither the foundations of different societies, nor the foundations of European institutions and the mutual relationships between countries. Technically, one could certainly speculate that the entire system of government might have been destabilized, particularly in countries failing to fight the disease properly. However, no such destabilization has taken place solely due to COVID-19, and almost certainly never will.

No matter how inappropriate or presumptuous it may seem to place the respective impacts of a virus and people’s decisions in a referendum in the same bracket, it should not be taken ‘personally’. We are in no way attempting to align Brexit and the virus; the focus of our comparison is strictly limited to two circumstances. The first circumstance—the event positioning as frequented by the media and public debate—is actually of somewhat lesser significance. The second circumstance is by far the more important, in that it involves the duration and reach of the event’s impact on Europe, as well as its arrangement and development.

In drawing the comparison, it has to be noted that the effects of Brexit, while currently less pronounced, will, without doubt, be substantially more persistent as well as eventually much more palpable.

When we began designing our book, The European Integration Crisis: An Economic Analysis, there was no sign of COVID-19, and even Brexit was still in its infancy. Existent at that time, however, was a decision made by the people of the United Kingdom, clear and unequivocal, yet at the same time indicating stark disunity. What had already been fully exposed either to curious or disgruntled citizens of European countries, and, of the EU member states in particular, was European integration. It was clear even then that integration had suffered a grave shock which it would either learn to live with—or would die from gradually.

COVID-19 has dealt a bitter blow to the European Union in this respect. By dint of its rampant potential to cause fatalities and its aggressive nature, the pandemic has stolen all the attention not just of the already mentioned media, but also of political representatives and, most importantly, European nations. Debates over the impact of Brexit in the public arena have almost ceased, while negotiations on arranging the new relationships between the UK and continental Europe have been swept off the front pages, driven out into the deep background by other events, and only a few extraordinary and key moments have been able to attract the public interest.

However, a problem not talked about is not necessarily a problem solved, whatever many people may assume. Brexit is ‘waiting in the wings’, and, the earlier COVID-19 is taken full control of, the earlier the impacts of the former will be felt.

That is what our book is about, albeit by no means exclusively. It would be an absurd mistake to take Brexit as an event in isolation, shorn of its context, and not view it as part of a cause-and-effect chain, which it so obviously is.  Seen from this perspective, Brexit is but one moment in the great story of European integration, a story that combines a Messianic mission to build a continent of peace with the much less sentimental, but much more productive and pragmatic bureaucratic power-base.

In the past, analytical responses to European ideas approached them by employing a variety of significantly different ideals and methods. Numerous (whether pro- or anti-Europe) myths conceived with the participation of not only politicians, but many scientists too have been propagated. Let us pick just one claim from either camp as a reminder. Anti-integration rhetoric often descends into much-favoured assertions that ‘former Nazi’ or ‘fascist’ groups are behind European integration. Pro-European rhetoric, on the other hand, claims that the integration and unification of Europe has specifically paved the way for us to enjoy ‘an unprecedented period of peace’. The former argument would claim to be proof of integration’s ‘criminal nature’. The latter, in contrast, is aimed at proving that integration is ‘indispensable’.

Of course, what both of these attitudes in fact prove is flawed thinking from those presenting such unashamed reasoning. One might possibly condone (or, at least, reluctantly concede as acceptable) similar approaches when used in the heat of a political battle. However, they are certainly unacceptable when it comes to scientific research into a problem. While the former argument about the Nazi background of the integration effort (‘to unify Europe under German supremacy’) has no manifestation in reality beyond the obvious fact that the German economy is the largest on the continent, the latter entirely overlooks the fact that the European peace foundations are much more attributable to the complete victory of the continent’s socio-political systems, firmly rooted as they are in democracy, constitution, and cooperation.

We have consistently sought to avoid similar such simplifications in our work. What we have attempted to do instead was to grasp European integration from the public choice theory perspective, as a process that as such is neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad’. We have attempted to look at those trends with regard to their consequences and actual effects on the lives of the nations in Europe.

We will be glad if our book, written from the perspective of the new EU member states, can contribute even modestly to rationally evaluating integration or disintegration and, in particular, to gaining a better understanding of the integration efforts, so that they are regarded not as necessarily having the aim of effacing the diversity of Europe’s regions and countries.  By the same token, disintegration does not (of course) automatically mean a step towards non-cooperation. The point is that ‘integration’ and ‘disintegration’ are to some extent mere political clichés, attempting to condense immensely intricate social processes down to only two less-than-satisfactory terms that lack precise content.

Brexit, no matter how huge in importance, is still just one of the many components of a gradually evolving mosaic of the European arena as a whole. It does not necessarily constitute either an ‘end’ or a ‘beginning’ of anything. These, again, are but political clichés. Brexit primarily represents a massive intellectual challenge for us all to examine this complex region with all its permutations in even greater detail, understanding how the subject provokes ambivalence, whilst at the same time recognizing its indisputable interconnectedness.

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Marek Loužek is an Associate Professor at the Prague University of Economics and Business and the Czech Technical University in Prague. From 2003 to 2013, he served as an analyst for the Centre for Economics and Politics in Prague and as an advisor to the President of the Czech Republic. He has authored seven books and a number of articles in such journals as The World Economy, Post-Communist Economies, and American Journal of Economics and Sociology, among others.

Luboš Smrčka is a Professor of Economics at the Prague University of Economics and Business. In 1984, he graduated from the Czech University of Life Sciences in Prague. In the last 15 years, he has worked as a Senior Lecturer and a Fellow in the Department of Strategy at the Faculty of Business Administration of the Prague University of Economics and Business.

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