Daviel Lazure Vieira

The outcome of the June 23 Brexit referendum, where Britain decided to leave the European Union by a narrow 51.9% of the vote, continues to send shock waves across Europe and around the world, worrying investors, politicians and citizens alike. But for Robert Austin, associate professor at the Centre for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies at the Munk School of Global Affairs, the Brexit vote doesn’t fundamentally change the necessity or goals of the European Union.

The United Kingdom has seen spikes in racist and heinous crimes, and days ago, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, two key figures of the pro-Brexit movement, stepped down amidst political chaos in Westminster. The rapid, radical changes in British politics beg the question: what next? Is the spirit and future of the European community – based on restoring cooperation, peace and stability after the horrors of World War II – at stake? Despite its shortcomings, Austin believes the European Union has accomplished its stated aim to unite a bitterly divided Europe. “The enlargement process through the integration of former Eastern Bloc members within the EU is one of the most important, if not the most important post–World War II success stories,” he says. “Nothing that happens in the UK changes that central fact. Nothing changes because of an internal party dispute; because a prime minister decided to gamble the future of his country in an incredibly selfish way.”

Austin points out that despite net benefits for members across the continent – including for Western Europe, which has gained access to new markets through foreign direct investment – Brexit underlines the inability of the European Union to explain what it does and how it accomplishes its objectives. This failure has led to a resurgence of the politics of fear, whereby the European Union has become the scapegoat for rising inequalities and security threats. Populist messages, fuelled by anti-immigration rhetoric, are not exclusive to Britain. Their pervasive influence is found elsewhere in Europe, as exemplified by the rise of the far right in France, Austria, Poland, or Hungary. “Our biggest challenge is to address the growth of these populist movements; the real architects of anti-EU sentiments,” explains Austin. “These fringe parties have entered the mainstream of politics. The fringe guys usually remain in the bleachers – they keep screaming but nobody notices them. Now, they’ve moved onto the main playing field because mainstream parties have failed, whether due to complacency, poor decision-making, or outright corruption. We must defeat the politics of fear by getting the fringe back on the bench where they belong.”

An expert on Central and Eastern European history, Austin has worked extensively in the Balkans region. He witnessed the shift from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the gradual welcoming of the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia within the European community in 2004, followed by Bulgaria and Romania in 2007, and Croatia in 2013. “That you now have a prosperous middle class in Brno in 2016, whereas in 1988 Czechoslovakia was still a quasi-Stalinist state, testifies to the success of the EU. It gave a future to post-communist societies, and created economic benefits for everybody,” he says. According to Austin, for those who are still waiting to join, the European Union makes sense now more than ever. “Hungary wouldn’t have as many infrastructure projects in the works without funds provided by the EU. To me, the way ahead hasn’t changed much. Europe is still a compelling ideal that’s worth striving for because it provides opportunities for these nations that have undertaken extraordinary, truly revolutionary reforms.”

July 7, 2016