At first glance, the stalemate surrounding Brexit is an expression of a specific domestic political crisis. At second glance, one gets the impression that the EU cannot deal with the withdrawal of Member States. But isn’t this crisis a symptom that our political systems are eroding? Democratic institutions lack the means and possibilities to solve today’s complex problems.
On Saturday, the British Parliament voted to postpone the vote on Boris Johnson's deal with the EU until the legal texts are on hand. The Prime Minister was now legally obliged to apply in Brussels for a postponement of the EU resignation, although he himself would obviously prefer to stick to October 31st.
The easy way out is to accuse the British Prime Minister of a lack of inclusive leadership and the British Parliament of escaping into formalism. But doesn’t the stalemate in Great Britain show that the classical governance institutions and instruments of democratically constituted nation states fail because of the complexity and unpredictability of current political challenges? Don’t even international organisations - and the European Union can be described as such, albeit in a particularly unique way – lack ideas how to deal with these challenges?
It is well known that long before the Brexit discussion, the British had already been great critics of the EU’s communitarisation process, jointly promoted by the Commission and the European Court of Justice. It is also well known that some initiatives have been taken on the British side to counter this creeping loss of national sovereignty. These “British special wishes” have repeatedly led to disagreements with those political elites for whom the realisation of the “United States of Europe”, including a common constitution, is a matter close to their hearts.
Now, the common European Constitution has failed and has been put on ice for the time being, but what remains is the concern of some Member States about the loss of their sovereignty and, therefore, their identity. These debates are avoided as far as possible in the EU’s political leadership circles and demonised, with the broad support of the media, as “regression” and “nationalist tendencies” - without offering a common European identity.
However, also in Great Britain it was probably the concern for the loss of one's own identity and sovereignty that initiated and made possible the Brexit debate. The rude awakening followed when it became clear that Great Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union was a highly complex task and a precedent under international law. And the British really got into a skid in view of the complexity of the associated political consequences. How should the British Parliament deal with the reversal of the already advanced distribution of power at the international level?
Britain overlooks the fact that in the globalised world with its diverse economic interdependencies, the attempt to strictly uphold statehood (sovereignty) cannot be a suitable response to the new political challenges.
The EU, for its part, overlooks the fact that the political identity that has always inspired peoples to form states cannot be replaced by the economic, i. e. by the catalogue of fundamental freedoms. The EU overlooks the fact that identity formation cannot take place if the common foreign and security policy, Schengen, the Monetary Union, etc. are not accessible to all Member States or are developed differently in the Member States.
So Brexit is much more than a British crisis. It is a fact that individual states with their democratic institutions cannot solve international problems. It is another fact that intergovernmental cooperation between states cannot function according to the principles of national democratic constitutions. Neither the British Parliament nor the EU institutions can solve this fundamental dilemma. We therefore urgently need new political steering mechanisms that allow national identity and sovereignty to be preserved, even when international problems are being solved.