The new balance of power in Brussels after Brexit

The EU’s leaders aren’t exactly a diverse group.
The EU’s leaders aren’t exactly a diverse group.
Image: AP Photo/Andrew Medichini
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Brussels, Belgium

The Justus Lipsius building, home of the European Council, is a giant glass doorstop, clenched between sickly pinkish pillars. This is where EU leaders meet to vote on Europe’s future—and where Britain’s absence will be most keenly noticed after Brexit.

As the EU’s second-largest economy, the British government held serious clout in the Council’s wood-paneled rooms and was never afraid to upset the applecart on sensitive matters. Its departure will transform voting on crucial issues like the budget, overall integration, and the management of the Eurozone.

What really distinguishes Britain however, is that it is the EU’s biggest member state not to have adopted the euro. This created a rallying point for eight other non-Eurozone member states, made up of Eastern Europeans, Sweden and Denmark. Now, without Britain, the specter of a “multi-speed Europe”—in which countries that have the Euro integrate faster than the rest—looks more and more likely.  

In the past, the bloc preferred to move all members closer together at once. But enlargement to 28 countries has made unity tougher to find, and the EU’s institutions have been accused of focusing too much on fire-fighting and not enough on long-term institutional strength. These days, heavyweights like France are increasingly content with a core of enthusiastic countries taking steps on certain issues, letting the rest join if and when they want.

Losing Britain, the only EU heavyweight with its own currency, threatens to centralize European power among countries that use the euro.  ”Post-Brexit, the Eurozone will represent 85% of the EU’s GDP and 76% of the EU’s population,” says Agata Gostynska-Jakubowska, a research fellow at London-based think tank the Center for European Reform and an expert on the European institutions.

“That would mean that if the Eurozone wanted to vote in a bloc, it could impose decisions on non-Euro area countries.” That wouldn’t please the Eastern Europeans, especially far-right governments like Poland and Hungary that are already frozen out from the EU’s liberal mainstream.

While that’s not likely to happen soon, there is certainly “growing uneasiness among the non-Eurozone countries,” she says. German chancellor Angela Merkel has given her loose backing (paywall) to a proposal from France’s Emmanuel Macron to create an additional Eurozone-only budget and finance minister. (Though Paris seems to have started easing its focus on Eurozone reform ahead of this week’s EU summit.)

The EU could become “multi-speed” in other ways too: Britain has consistently pushed for a leaner and cheaper institution. In this, Gostynska-Jakubowska says, it was doing the dirty work for countries like Germany, Sweden, and the Netherlands. Like the UK, those are net contributors to the EU’s budget but, unlike Britain, they’re shy about criticizing the EU. They will now have to start speaking up if they want to keep their payments down.

The second, much more pressing, question is how the EU goes about filling a €20 billion hole (12.7% of the total 2017 budget) in Europe’s accounts, which will result from the loss of UK payments and the need to fund things like security integration. The net payers have already refused to dole out more, says Pierre Vimont, former secretary general of the EEAS, the EU’s foreign service. That means a spending reduction that will hit “at the heart of all our policies.”

Again, the Eastern Europeans look likely to suffer here. They’ll probably see cuts to the “structural funds” they receive for development. “More or less, Western Europe will be saying, ‘No way, we’re going to reduce the amount of money for you,'” says Vimont, who was also French ambassador to the EU and chief of staff to three French foreign ministers.

Their one consolation: If Eurozone countries can’t commit any more to the main budget, they’ll be unlikely to find extra cash for a separate Eurozone piggybank.

A more Europhile, less diverse parliament

Dutch “starchitect” Rem Koolhaas once quipped that the presence of European institutions in the pretty Leopold Quarter had “given the citizens of Brussels a traumatic experience in the heart of their city.” At the center of those institutions is the European Parliament, a spiraling jumble of glass and concrete.

Emptied once a month for the entire parliament to decamp to Strasbourg, the rest of the time the European Parliament building feels like a mazing, airless airport. Odder still are its inhabitants, who vary from industrious European believers, to political mediocrities unable to make it into their home parliaments, to far-right weirdos elected in protest votes by citizens who think the faraway institution doesn’t matter.

Britain has sent some excellent parliamentarians to Brussels over the years. But Brexit will free the body from a few dozen British Eurosceptics whose main métier seems to be making long, childish rants in the chamber. Not one of the 20 MEPs from far-right UK Independence Party (UKIP) has drafted a single opinion or report since being elected in 2014, according to VoteWatch Europe. Five of the 20 MEPs with the worst vote attendance rates in the Parliament belong to UKIP, while three are British Conservatives.

“I think other MEPs will be glad to see the back of many of those people,” says Labour MEP Claude Moraes, one of the most senior Britons in the parliament. “They’re generally perceived as lazy and destructive.”

More consequential is how the EU goes about replacing Britain’s delegates. The most interesting idea is an Italian proposal to hold a Europe-wide election for 73 pan-European MEPs. Macron enthusiastically endorsed the plan in a recent speech at the Sorbonne University, imploring decision-makers to take a risk. “Don’t be afraid! Have real European elections!” he cried (link in French).

Whatever the solution, the parliament, and other EU institutions, will become even less representative of Europe’s ethnic diversity. In an excellent series on Brussels’ racial homogeneity, POLITICO Europe points out that the EU doesn’t even collect figures on its employees’ ethnic makeup. Various estimates suggest around 1% of the institutions’ employees are people of color, and, of the parliament’s 751 MEPs, around 17 are thought to be non-white. That number will plunge further when the eight or so ethnic minority British MEPs leave.

“It’s a disgraceful number,” says Moraes, who is of Indian origin. “This is Europe! With London, Paris, Madrid, Barcelona—some of the most ethnically diverse [cities] anywhere in the world.”

This is the third story in Brussels after Brexit, a four-part series exploring how the EU is preparing for life without Britain. 

Read more:

The unbearable limbo of being a British bureaucrat in Brussels

Britain rejected the EU and the EU is loving its new life