RD Interview: Florent Parmentier of the School of Public Affairs at Sciences Po in Paris talks about Brexit’s consequences for Europe and sheds light on the current state of Europe-Russia relations.

French President Francois Hollande before the EU Summit in Brussels, June 29, 2016. Photo: RIA Novosti

The UK vote to leave the European Union has become one of the most serious challenges in the Union’s history. Combined with the growing terrorist threat and refugee crisis, Europe is now facing an unprecedented scope of threats and challenges. How Russia fits into this picture is still unclear.

Russia Direct talked to Florent Parmentier, assistant director of the Sciences Po School of Public Affairs, research associate at HEC and founder of the website eurasiaprospective.net, about the impact Brexit might have on the European Union in general and what Europe and Russia should do to start the reconciliation process.

Russia Direct: Many experts claim that Brexit will have a big impact on EU-Russia relations. For example, some say that it is to Russia’s advantage that Europe is becoming less united – this makes it an easier partner for Moscow. How do you think that will affect Europe’s policy towards Russia?

Florent Parmentier: I think it is a wishful thinking from those in Russia and the EU on this matter. In fact, Brexit will have a certain impact on the EU but probably not the one some people expect. After the UK voted to leave the EU, we have a sort of experimental laboratory to see what it is like to be non-European, and the costs associated with that. For example, there are banks that likely will start questioning if the City will remain the same after Brexit. So, there are quite obvious costs of not being part of Europe: it may become more expensive to hire qualified people from European countries, access to the internal market may become more difficult, as will borrowing money in the financial markets.

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For these reasons, in several polls, and in different EU countries, people understood that Brussels does have some problems, but if you see what it is like to become a non-European nation, you won’t find something extraordinarily amazing in it, things won’t improve at all. So, that is why Brexit is sort of an experimental laboratory that will show us what the costs of becoming non-EU are. Maybe the victor of this will be the EU itself as it will gain more coherence, rethink its approach or start thinking more carefully after one country left it.

But if we look carefully, I personally do not see a lot of new candidates for another exit. We have heard about Czexit but I don’t think the Czech Republic will do that. Maybe the next big problem for the EU will be Italy, but we have to see how Italy will overcome its crisis. In France, for instance, people now see that leaving the EU is a mess. The amusing thing is that political leaders who advocated for Brexit decided to distance themselves, to withdraw after the UK voted to leave and it is very telling. More than two months after the referendum, we see hot air, but no master strategy behind the Brexit for the British elites is at place.

RD: You mean that they did not expect that their campaign for the “leave” vote would ultimately succeed?

F.P. Maybe they expected it. But it is easier to ruin something than create [something]. So, now they need to build their new house, after being part of the EU for more than four decades.

RD: How do you think that will affect Europe’s policy towards Russia?

F.P. For years to come, the EU will be more inward looking than focused on its Eastern neighborhood. As a consequence, the EU may pay less attention to countries such as Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia and the like. Under these circumstances, the UK may desire to normalize its relations with Russia; it has often been critical as an EU member state with a quite similar approach to Poland and the Baltic States. However, this softer European approach might be counterbalanced by a harsher Atlanticist approach.

RD: How do you think the notion of sovereignty has evolved during the last decades and how does Brexit impact it?

F.P. Well, if we look at the reality, then I am not sure if the UK is going to have more sovereignty after Brexit. And there are several reasons for that. One is that the idea of shared sovereignty that we developed in the European integration concept. It means that you are a part of the round table that takes decisions, so you are taking part in the decision-making process. Once you leave the table you don’t have a say in the process anymore. So, the EU will continue making decisions without the UK and Britain will have to apply it the issue is particularly important for the internal market. As a result, from this perspective Brexit is a certain loss of sovereignty for the United Kingdom.

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RD: But why would the UK apply those decisions if it is not a part of the Union anymore?

F.P.: True. But if they want to have a European passport or to have an access to the European economic market – in those cases they won’t have a choice but to apply the EU decision.

Actually, now without an access to the internal market, the UK would be in a situation, which was once a dream for Napoleon the economic blockade of Britain. In fact, he dreamt about an effective blockade of Great Britain by continental Europe. The fact that we don’t know if the UK can have access to the European integrated market is kind of an economic blockade in a sense. But now it was not made by the EU it is Great Britain that made it alone.

So, in terms of sovereignty, the UK lost some. Now, if they chose not to apply EU decisions, the alternative is very poor. Look, if I were a BRICS member state and I had to make a choice between the EU’s 27 country markets and the UK to concentrate my efforts to make a free trade agreement, I would definitely focus on the EU as it is a much bigger market. So, there is no question about that.

In fact, Great Britain is not an Isle of Man, which is a tiny self-governing island that cannot do much about it. The UK is a country of 60 million people, who need to be integrated into the continent to benefit, develop and prosper. This is why they applied for the membership in the first place in the 1970s and why the UK was blooming during its years as an EU member. But in the end, the UK took a sovereign decision to leave, but it doesn’t mean that it received more sovereignty in the end.

This was one thing. The other thing is that the real victor in terms of sovereignty in this situation might be Scotland. As Scotland largely voted to “remain” in the EU, it now has more motivation to secede from the UK and obtain independence. The same holds true about Northern Ireland. And this is something we can expect. So, maybe in a few years we will be talking about some sort of Anglo-Wales confederation instead of Great Britain.

Once a country decides to leave the EU, its capacity to do things decreases. Of course, there is a difference between the ideal type of sovereignty, which is something like deciding whether to do or not to do the things and the reality, which might not allow one to implement decisions. So, the question of sovereignty is the question of capacity in the end. And often when you are alone, you do not have capacity to do anything. It is true for a lot of questions like economics and environmental questions. For a small state like Slovenia, for instance, staying with the EU can make more of a difference than for big countries. And it is true even if a small country within the EU does not have capacity for that.

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RD: Do you think tensions along political and security lines between the EU and Russia create the main obstacle for businesses and economies to start a more intense cooperation and partnership? How can reconciliation between Europe and Russia happen?

F.P.: Firstly, the EU already had economic relations with Russia and the EU will remain Russia’s main economic partner for years to come. Even if the integration within the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) will be successful and will expand, the crucial moment here is that without any relationship with the EU, the EEU by itself does not bring that many advantages to its members.

Secondly, I guess, we have to understand that there are some political areas where relations can be improved and there are some where it is extremely difficult. The Georgia-Russia war in 2008 changed the European perspective on Russia. The EU suspended several cooperation agreements with Russia back then, but in the end, Germany came up with the concept that we should fix our relations with Russia and that Russia also has to undergo modernization to develop our relations further.

But when the situation sort of repeated with the Ukrainian crisis, it became much more difficult to take the same path.

I think that if we want to start a process of larger EU-Russia reconciliation, maybe Europe should stop focusing on just the personality of Vladimir Putin. It often seems that there are 144 million citizens in Russia and only one who rules everything and everyone, which, of course, is not true and sounds crazy.

On the other side, I think that everybody should understand that a new Ukraine is emerging but it is not yet the Ukraine the Europeans dreamt about – a country with the rule of law, no corruption, etc. – but it is not the Ukraine Russia wanted to see either. The ongoing conflict in Ukraine has largely tarnished the international image of Russia, ruining years of investments in soft power tools.

However, the medium- and long-term interests of the EU and Russia may converge towards the stabilization of the neighboring countries when common rules are agreed upon in this region. At the very least, we should agree on the points on which we disagree.