On June 24, 2016, the world woke up to Boris Johnson, former mayor of London, reassuring everyone that the UK is and will remain a European country. In light of the results of the Brexit referendum with 52% voting to leave the EU, the meaning of being European is now blurry.
For decades the EU has been an embodiment of the cultural and political idea of Europe. Despite its crises, the EU has been the most successful model of regional integration and a source of peace, stability and prosperity that other regions have, in different ways, tried to emulate. For Central Eastern European countries, the EU represented one of the strongest transformational pulls in their history. The “return to Europe” was the mantra that kept dissidents under communism and then post-communist elites on the path of democratic development. Not least, despite all of its faults, the EU is still a major catalyst for reform in its Eastern vicinity and has given people hope in the face of conflict and economic downturn. It was only two years ago that the European integration idea inspired one of the most emotionally powerful revolutions of recent time – Ukraine’s Euromaidan.
Now, as the United Kingdom decides to be the first country to break away from the EU, messages of European unity have a strange undertone. While most European leaders, in CEE in particular, discuss reform and cohesion, they seem to refer to the EU as a foreign entity. The EU failed to answer the multiple crises it has been confronted with recently, argued Hungarian Prime-Minister Viktor Orban, and that might be true. But isn’t the EU a construction of 28, now possibly 27, states? The EU has been the favorite scapegoat for a wide range of domestic and regional problems, particularly in recent years with the rise populism in both Western as well as Central and Eastern Europe. When politically convenient, European leaders gladly adopt a critical or straight out anti-EU discourse. Like many of the implications of the UK exiting the EU, whether this will make European politicians more responsible and more in tune with their electorates remains uncertain.
The referendum shockwave reverberated strongest in countries closer to the troubled Eastern border of the EU like Romania. Despite reassuring speeches from politicians, Brexit strikes at the core of the pro-EU sentiment and the symbolic value that membership provides. Approval of the EU in Romania is 57%, the highest in the alliance, followed by Poland (55%), Ireland (54%), Lithuania (53%) and Croatia (51%). And of course political and economic benefits of membership surpass anything these countries, in particular in CEE, could have achieved on their own. Beyond this though, a strong EU means a firewall against aggressive or revanchist neighbors. More than 70 years since the European idea started taking root as a peace-keeping instrument, maintaining peace and stability has emerged as a core concern for the entire continent.
If Brexit is to have a positive outcome, member states must make a true commitment to European solidarity and take real responsibility in rebuilding the union. The stakes are too high for members and aspiring countries alike, as well as for everyday citizens, to stand idle. Today’s results might also be an opportunity for CEE countries to show leadership in support of the one goal that has kept them afloat in the past quarter century. As Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė put it - "it is our duty to restore people's trust in the EU."