Europe is in the middle of a storm, and could survive only if its leaders will manage to find new reasons to stick together.
The most prominent issues that seem to be keeping the EU awake at night, such as the refugee crisis, the aftermath of the financial crisis that started in 2008, the continued misery of the austerity-haunted periphery plus coping with the rise in populism, have now been joined by Brexit. If the EU wants to consolidate its negotiating power as a united entity, Brexit will now demand the full attention of the EU’s remaining 27, thereby mending the cracks that question its very existence while simultaneously sending a strong signal to all its members that leaving the EU implies a series of heavy political and economic costs.
If the EU wants to remain united, immense efforts will have to be undertaken to compensate for the UK leaving. Militarily, this could result in a new, consolidated EU-Army as part of NATO. Economically, as a main producer of manufactured goods the EU depends heavily on imports from outside the EU, notably energy imports. A weakness in the EU bond could cause China, Russia and others to fill the vacuum and take advantage of this apparent limbo.
From a macro perspective, one of the superpowers could step in and establish stronger trade ties, facilitating more efficient trade routes and gaining deeper access to European markets – both commercially and politically. While on the surface this would be presented as a form of a free trade agreement or even a sort of “Marshall Plan”, the reality is rather that Europe would be leaving itself open to blackmail by a new “sugar daddy”. The takeover of the Greek port of Piraeus by the Chinese shipping giant COSCO in 2016 and the current project for a Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline (carrying Russian gas across the Baltic sea into Germany) not only widens the cracks within the EU, but one can clearly observe that such a division is being instantly exploited by whoever seems to be the highest bidder. Of course, each sale has two sides and while bashing the seller covers one part, it should be quite obvious to any observer that buyers themselves act out of quite selfish motives. This is symptomatic of the widening cracks in the EU; when push comes to shove, the European Union’s members will fend for themselves as nation states rather than acting as a union.
In short, the EU is likely to witness more attempts by outside forces to seize a share of Europe’s economic and political cake. The EU’s imminent task will be to put on a face that at least distracts from its internal and external struggles, be it coping with Brexit or coping with an increasingly less predictable Turkey, to name just two very unwelcome and acute issues.