Everyone has the feeling that the Brexit referendum was more than just merely a referendum. It has triggered historical sea change not only for the UK and the EU as a whole, but far beyond their boundaries. However, in the search of the way out from what is now seen by many as a disaster, possible scenarios have been become blurred amid diverse and sometimes wild speculations, including the possible reversal of an actual Brexit process, dismantling the EU via ‘referenda spill-over’ effectuated by political extremists, equipping NATO with a new ‘European role’, among a multitude of other prospects. Still, one thing is clear – Brexit referendum has already profoundly affected the world’s political landscape, including that of the EaP countries, which are relatively less analysed in relation to the mess created by Brexit. So how has the Referendum influenced developments in Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, and what may happen after and if the UK actually leaves the EU?
First, the EU now even more dominated by the rather asymmetric German-French leadership will most probably demonstrate more caution and prudence regarding any radical change of the status quo, along with less enthusiasm on enlargement and greater engagement with the Eastern neighbourhood; Instead it is expected to predominantly focus on managing and harmonising its internal affairs, and only gradually and slowly reforming itself by carefully mobilising support for this on the part of the member states, quite a Sisyphean task nowadays. Enlargement agenda is one of the strongest cards in the populists’ pack, along with migration, as the appeal to the concerns of own citizens, pretending to aim at protecting their welfare and avoiding waste of money on the ‘others’, claiming that some of these even pose existential threats of sorts to the EU unity. For example, the plea regarding Turkish membership has been one of the core arguments of the masters of ‘Leave’ campaign, scaring public with the prospect of mass arrival of destitute migrants from the country of 80 million people. Furthermore, the new security strategy of the EU merely pays just a lip service to the notion of the ENP. An acute eye can see in this that the Union has given up on the application of its transformative and democratising effort, and instead opts to increasingly rely on the resilience of the EaP countries, in other words – they have to take care of themselves.
Second, despite Putin’s denial that he had anything to do with the results of the Brexit referendum, hardly accepted for face value by anyone after so many lies and deceptions, there is little doubt that, whether genuine or opportunist, Russophiles gloated over the referendum’s outcome. The leverage of pro-Russian forces is also expected to rise in Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia, as the alternative soft power gets increasingly super-soft, to use the F-1 terminology. Brexit is a very tasty cake for the Russian propaganda machine as well, which will not spare any effort in order to convince the rest of the world that the EU is at the edge of demolition, that the peoples within and without the EU have finally awaken from the hypnosis of the European project, and can finally see that the emperor’s new clothes are actually non-existent. So Russia has been right once again to look down on the EU as a decadent utopia without future. In the case of Georgia this would also mean strengthening of pro-Russian parties, including the one of former speaker of the parliament Burjanadze who is openly against of NATO and EU and sees them as just useless IOs (international organisations); for Ukraine this would mean strong disappointment on part of the public who would realise there is now even less probability of the Minsk Agreement to get implemented, to say nothing regarding the return of Crimea; Moldova most probably will intensify its ‘normalisation’ process with Russia in reality leading to rapprochement, as the country is in urgent need of financial support after having cut off access to international financial instruments due to the banking fraud scandals.
Third, Britain departure will not be a zero sum game but will mean essential economic loss for both the EU and the UK, While mentioning the concrete numbers is early due to the yet unknown results of the future UK-EU negotiations – these will start only after (and a small – if) the UK triggers the article 50 of the Treaty, – there is no doubt that financial resources at the disposal of the EU will diminish, therefore the Union will have to reconsider the scale of financial support to the EaP countries. The remaining 27 countries will be more cautious if not parsimonious in spending money for such programmes, and sooner or later the EU development cooperation instruments for the EaP will be revisited and revised, although most probably not towards increase.
Fourth – the security of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia will become the issue. Brexit means loss of the EU credibility in particular in the eyes of her neighbourhood, but also the reduction of its influence and leverage. Therefore the feeling of insecurity will rise among these EaP countries, which bear an unfortunate burden of frozen conflicts, the sad legacy of Soviet nationality policy, such as Transnistria (Moldovan territory – a self-declared statelet by the Ukrainian border), Abkhazia and South Ossetia (Georgian territories occupied and recognised by Russia) and Crimea – relatively new but not the final adventure of Russia that annexed it away fro Ukraine in March 2014. On all these conflicts Russia has her grip that is expected now to tighten further, in addition to probing NATO’s vulnerable points and resolve in other places. As strengthened Putin will be enthusiastic to write down the Europe’s obituary, even if it’s too early, Moldova will still be handicapped to move forward with the EU integration due to the security as well as financial reasons; Ukraine will face stronger hurdles in its progress, due to the now even more non-confrontational and appeasement policies towards Russia of the EU minus the UK, the staunchest supporter of the Russia’s endangered neighbours, that may eventually even lead to prematurely lifting at least some of the anti-Russian sanctions; Georgia, in its turn, may left puzzled – after rejoicing its visa free regime (still in question) it will need to meet high expectations of its own citizens (with around 75% of the population in favour of EU integration), but the reality will be different – the EU will be even less willing to pursue further integration with Georgia, while even less capable of supporting its territorial security.
Finally, the Brexit referendum led to the further loss of credibility and appeal of its soft power by the EU, already threatened and eroded by increasing populism of radical left and right xenophobic Eurosceptics. This has also put a big question mark on the political rationale and attractiveness of democratic transition and Europeanisation processes in Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova. The rivalry between the modernisers still believing in the European model, and the traditionalists and pro-Russian reactionaries pointing toward the failure of the European project, might turn dangerous. Obviously, the Brexit referendum was not only about the choice whether to remain in or leave the EU, but it was clearly an anti-establishment vote, rebellion against the mainstream ideologies, caused by the loss of trust and resentment due to failed attempt by elites to solve the burning societal and economic problems, and lead the societies out of the current crisis.
However, in the case of the three EaP countries the situation may become even worse due to the deeply rooted mistrust toward the political class and vulnerability in the face traditional populism in personalised politics, and massive anti-western propaganda that now gained the new fodder with the Brexit. While being in the middle of democratic transition, if they feel that the EU has given up on its transformative power and withdraw, this may unleash unhappy scenario when Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia will find themselves abandoned and suspended in the ‘middle of nowhere’, while under the permanent threat and pressure for the resurgent and increasingly imperialist Russia.
To sum up, the Brexit scenario, even before it gets realised, may damage and hurt the three aspiring pro-western states in the Eastern Neighbourhood, leaving them more insecure, with less support, and even worse, with less public enthusiasm to continue to move along their Europeanization path. This will have a rather negative impact on both their internal policies in these countries, weakening the appeal of democratic, free-market, European model of development, and on the other hand, on their foreign policies, as they will have to look for the ways of how to deal with the existential threats emanating from Russia. The only hope is that on one hand the EU, reformed and maybe even weakened, will still care to help its desperate eastern neighbours; and on the other, that the US and NATO, as well as the UK (whether within or without of the EU) will do their best to compensate for potential losses in terms of support and security.