Top European diplomats expressed uncertainty at the extent of the economic fallout accompanying Britain’s historic vote to leave the European Union in a panel discussion hosted Oct. 17 by Georgetown University Law Center’s Institute of International Economic Law.
French Ambassador to the United States Gérard Araud categorized populism as an important role in Brexit, as well as the current U.S. presidential election, pointing to Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s take on populism as particularly powerful.
“I think, quite frankly, ‘Trumpism’ is a transatlantic phenomenon,” Araud said. “We all face the same wave of populism. It’s really a wide challenge that we are all facing — all Western democracies, and not only the Europeans.”
The event, Europe After Brexit, included remarks from ambassadors representing the European Union, Germany, France and Slovakia reflecting on the ramifications of the referendum on both the EU and its partnering countries, as well as their priorities going forward in post-Brexit Europe. GULC is the first law school in the world to offer a seminar, Brexit and the Law, focused exclusively on Brexit.
EU Ambassador to the United States David O’Sullivan said Britain’s decision to leave the EU did not come as a shock given its history of reservation toward the organization.
“There’s always been a healthy, strong body of opinion in the U.K. which was frankly reluctant and reserved about membership if not downright hostile,” O’Sullivan said. “I think once you open the possibility of a vote on this subject it was always going to be a close call as to what came out of it.”
O’Sullivan also recognized the role of the 2008 financial crisis in Brexit, which he cited as a starting point of the growing discontent throughout Europe and the United States.
“There are generic elements of the moment which you will find elsewhere in Europe, and which, to a certain extent, I think you will find elsewhere in the United States: a sense of frustration with the way economic and social policy had developed, particularly since the financial crisis and economic crisis in 2008,” O’Sullivan said.
German Ambassador to the United States Peter Wittig said while it is difficult to change the narrative surrounding immigration at this time in Europe, it is important to remember the benefits that come with the single market. Wittig cited the recent acceptance of 10 Eastern European states into the EU as an example of the positive economic growth that can accompany the single market and immigration.
Araud said the complexity of negotiations and uncertainty regarding the long-term future of the EU requires cooperation among countries.
“All of us want a mutually beneficial relationship with the U.K.; we are not going on the revenge path,” Araud said. “But it is so complicated that we are unable to tell you where we are going.”
Araud also emphasized the importance of maintaining unity within the EU, stating that compromise with the U.K., while essential, is secondary to maintaining unity among the remaining 27 members of the union.
“Our main concern would be, of course, to maintain the unity of the 27,” Araud said. “So it means that we are not going to accept some U.K. demands which may actually endanger the unity of the 27.”
O’Sullivan stressed the difficulty of implementing further measures until the EU receives a clear response from the U.K.
“We are at a very, very early stage; every morning brings some new revelation of disagreement or a different reproach,” O’Sullivan said. “We owe it to the British government and people to give them the space to try and sort this out and come forward, in due time, with a sort of position which reflects how they see this and where they want to go. And, until this happens, it’s difficult to respond.”
Panelists agreed that the repercussions of Brexit are largely negative for all involved parties. However, Wittig expressed that the referendum can be used as a lesson for growth.
“If there’s an upside after the Brexit decision, it’s two things: First, it’s a shock that helps us to refocus, and second, it might help to mobilize the youth, because they are the hope for our future,” Wittig said.
Max Sanders (LAW ’17), who attended the discussion and will be working for a British law firm after graduation, said Brexit holds personal consequences for him.
“A lot of what they do are the backdrop for these international transactions. So if, all of a sudden, you have a lot of protectionism imposed, then you can face some serious issues which might be good for legal work but which also might hamper corporate legal work,” Sanders said.
Elizabeth Rogers (LAW ’18), a student in GULC’s Brexit seminar, emphasized the relevance of Brexit for students in the community.
“Maybe in the U.S. we don’t take it as seriously as we should. I think that given how hostile the current election has been, how wild the accusations have been, we sort of miss the underlying concern of populism,” Rogers said. “That’s a real problem, and something we should be actively addressing. As students, it affects all of our futures, no matter what field we’re in.”