Now that we've had time to let the dust settle after the Brexit vote, it's becoming clear that the early panic was an overreaction. The British public is already showing seller’s remorse and leaders who supported the Leave option are seeing their fortunes fall. There's no reason that the United Kingdom can't remain tightly integrated into Europe, and a there is a very good chance that they'll wind up staying in the European Union after all. That is, unless EU leaders push the Brits to take the worst course in a fit of pique.
British Prime Minister David Cameron gambled and lost on the referendum. Faced with a split coalition and significant public angst over the direction the European Union was headed, Cameron promised in January 2013 to hold a referendum on Britain’s future in the European Union by 2017 if his party were re-elected in 2015. He simultaneously used the prospect of a Brexit as leverage in negotiations for exemptions to EU rules, particularly with respect to immigration, and campaigned hard to convince his public that the United Kingdom was stronger as a member of Europe. He failed.
By announcing his resignation the morning after the June 23 vote, but delaying it until a few months down the line, after the Conservative Party could vote in new leadership, Cameron shrewdly bought time to minimize if not completely undo the damage.
But the leadership in Brussels is foolishly working to undermine that effort.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has been by far the worst offender. He replied to Cameron's move by declaring that "Britons decided that they want to leave the European Union, so it doesn't make any sense to wait until October to try to negotiate the terms of their departure. I would like to get started immediately." He added that this was "not an amicable divorce" and whined "it was not exactly a tight love affair anyway.”
Meanwhile, EU Parliamentary Speaker Martin Schulz likewise demanded an immediate exit and sniffed that “a delay that only serves the tactical interests of the British conservatives is damaging to everyone."
These reactions, while certainly understandable, are incredibly short-sighted. EU leaders acting like jilted lovers serves neither the interests of the institution nor its members -- of which the United Kingdom incidentally remains.
European leaders -- along with the heads of both of the major UK parties -- desperately wanted to avoid a Leave vote, rightly seeing a European Union with Britain in it as better for all concerned. That reality hasn't changed based on a non-binding referendum. While it may be emotionally satisfying to punish the Brits for the perhaps rash decision of a slight majority of its voting citizens, world leaders ought to instead seek to delay Brexit while they work to turn the tide. Ideally, they would campaign to persuade the British public of the advantages or remaining in the union while simultaneously working to allay real concerns about immigration and other sovereignty issues that are shared by many other EU nations.
As Atlantic Council President Fred Kempe rightly notes, this is far from the first time that a public referendum has gone against the European project: "The Danes voted against the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 and the Irish voted against the Nice Treaty in 2001 and the Lisbon Treaty in 2008 -- only to reverse their decisions in a second referendum after changes."
Just days after their seeming victory, key Brexit leaders Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage have seen their political careers go down in flames. Drops in the stock market and the pound have already made manifest the dangers of leaving the EU and started to turn back public opinion. Cameron is boldly working to use his last weeks in office to avert the disaster, urging EU leaders to tweak the immigration rules that have so many across Europe uneasy.
Instead, the leadership in Brussels is doubling down.
Juncker issued a so-called presidential ban on informal talks with UK leaders ahead of formal invocation of the Article 50 exit process, declaring, “[t]here can be no preliminary discussions" because “I would not like the idea that there could be some sort of negotiations behind closed doors in smoke-filled rooms." Given that it's in everyone's interest to stall if not avert Article 50, allowing cooler heads to prevail, this is simply diplomatic malpractice. Behind closed doors is precisely where these talks should be; we've already seen where public posturing has gotten us.
Additionally, Juncker made a bizarre power grab in removing representatives from the 27 member countries from the trade negotiation between the European Union and Canada, instead deciding that negotiations should be handled solely by bureaucrats in Brussels. This reinforces anti-EU sentiment not only in Britain but across the continent.
Perhaps even more foolishly, Schulz called on Monday to replace the relatively weak Commission with a “genuine European government” and the establishment of a federal system. Given that the Brits are far from alone in questioning the "more Europe" line in the wake of the global financial crisis and the Paris terror attacks, Schulz’s call couldn't be more tone-deaf.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is ultimately a more important figure than anyone in Brussels, seems to be more sensible. On the one hand, she rightly sought to avoid incentivizing others who might want to follow the United Kingdom's lead, declaring that “[w]e will make sure that negotiations will not be carried out as a cherry-picking exercise. There must be and there will be a palpable difference between those countries who want to be members of the European family and those who don’t." She added that “[w]hoever wants to leave this family cannot expect to shed all its responsibilities but keep the privileges.”
At the same time, the chancellor has been much more responsible in her choice of words than her countrymen in EU leadership, rightly cautioning others not to "draw quick and easy conclusions from the British referendum that could further divide Europe." In contrast to Juncker and Schultz, her cabinet members have issued numerous statements pleading to allow time for reflection. Most notably, Merkel's chief of staff, Peter Altmaier, said “[t]he politicians in London should have the possibility to rethink the consequences of a withdrawal.”
Merkel's longtime mentor, former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, likewise warned against “unnecessary severity and haste” in reacting to the referendum. He urged EU leaders to take “one step back before taking two steps forward” to allow all EU member states time to figure out the way ahead. He also cautioned against taking steps toward further centralization in the near term and “mistaking a unified Europe with a standardized Europe." Coming from a man who successfully managed the reintegration of the former East Germany into his country and the transition of the European Community to the European Union, that's sage advice.
While the Europeans and Brits will ultimately have to sort this out for themselves, American leadership is also vital here. President Barack Obama has wisely backed off some over-the-top warnings ahead of the vote that the UK would go to "back of the queue" if it left the Union. In the aftermath of the Leave vote, Obama assured the British people that, “One thing that will not change is the special relationship between our two countries.” He went further, noting that we should "keep in mind that Norway is not a member of the European Union, but Norway is one of our closest allies," adding that if "Great Britain ends up being affiliated to Europe like Norway is, the average person is not going to notice a big change.”
Absent a complete reversal on Brexit, a Norway-like status for the UK is what everyone should want. It's not only the best but the most likely outcome if only EU leaders stop behaving like pouting children.