Regardless of its outcome, the UK referendum will affect EU politics in Central Europe. GLOBSEC Policy Institute has asked top Czech, Slovak and Polish foreign policy analysts for their views. The new edition of our blog series is introduced by Mark Leonard, director of European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).

These three pieces show how Britain’s European psycho-drama could spill over into the politics of other EU countries – whether Britain decides to stay or leave.

If Britain does decide to leave, it will not only take a sledge hammer to its own economy and reduce its voice in the world – it would also leave the EU poorer and weaker.  It could create major imbalances within the European Union. London’s presence in the EU provides comfort to countries that are outside the euro that their interests will not be sacrificed.  It adds weight to the forces that support free markets, muscular foreign policies, and sanctions on Russia.  As these pieces show, British Prime Minister David Cameron is unusual in having good channels both to Berlin and Warsaw (two capitals that are set to be at loggerheads with each other over the refuges crisis and many other issues).  The worry is that a Brexit could set off a cycle of disintegration – prompting other countries either to join the inner core around Germany or to seek their own escape routes from EU integration.

If Britain votes to remain in the EU, I hope that David Cameron will use the public’s democratic blessing of the EU to strengthen EU foreign policy and reform.

Britain could make common cause with the upcoming Slovak EU presidency on strengthening the energy union, pushing forward with the digital and capital markets union agenda but above all, it could help strengthen EU foreign policy.  London could offer to play a more useful role on Russia and help the EU develop a joint approach on Libya and Syria.  By reaching out to other EU member states, Cameron can act in a statesman-like way and seek to put the European issue to rest for a generation in Britain (achieving something he did not manage in the wake of the Scottish referendum).

If, however, he puts party before country and continues to appease Conservative Eurosceptics he could instead provoke a negative contagion effect across Europe with populist parties calling their own referenda for national opt-outs (with Orbán’s Hungary proceeding with its anti-refugee quota referendum for later this year).  In that event, many fear that the EU will have so many opt-outs that it looks like Swiss cheese.

Mark Leonard, Director of ECFR

Vladimír Bartovic, Director of EUROPEUM Institute for European Policy, Prague

This referendum is not only about UK membership itself, but it also has the potential to define the future of European integration more broadly. If the “leave” camp is successful, it will be the first time in the EU history that a member state opts to withdraw. What was unimaginable a few years ago could become a “new reality”. A Brexit would certainly support the further development of similar ideas in other member states, including countries of Central Europe. Marginal voices asking for an exit from the Union have already gained significant public attention, and the use of referendums on EU membership in other countries cannot be ruled out. According to a majority of commentators, Brexit will portend a process of EU disintegration.

The Visegrad countries have traditionally shared many similar interests and positions with the UK on foreign and security policy, including strong support for the transatlantic partnership, the promotion of the Eastern Partnership, and a cautious stance towards Russia. Central European countries and the UK are resolute supporters of the completion of the European single market, the removal of barriers, international trade liberalization, and measures enhancing the competitiveness of the Union. A Brexit would undermine the prioritization of these topics in EU policies. Moreover, it would further shift the balance between the Eurozone and non-Eurozone member states. Unlike Slovakia, other Visegrad member states would most likely remain outside the Eurozone. The UK is the second largest economy in the EU and by a wide margin the largest among countries outside the Eurozone. A Brexit would significantly weaken the position of states outside the Eurozone. A UK withdrawal from the European single market would also exert an impact on foreign trade in our region and would translate into countries receiving fewer resources from the cohesion funds of the EU budget, which would lose one of the biggest net contributors. A Brexit would also threaten the position of hundreds of thousands of citizens from the Central European member states who live in the UK, with their future status remaining unclear.

On the other hand, it is important to note that even if the UK decides to remain a member, the EU will change. The deal between the UK and the rest of the EU adopted by the European Council in February 2016 confirmed that a multi-speed or multi-tier Europe is a new reality. The agreement will lay out new rules, such as a safeguard mechanism or the indexation of child allowances, not only for the UK, but potentially also for other EU members. However, the arrangement will be implemented only if the UK remains a member of the Union.

Vladimír Bilčík, Head of EU Program, Slovak Foreign Policy Association, Bratislava

Regardless of the outcome, the UK referendum will affect EU politics in Central Europe. Of most immediate concern, the result of a British vote on 23 June is going to shape both the context and priorities for Slovakia’s EU Council Presidency beginning 1 July 2016.

A UK decision in favour of continued EU membership might provide some practical meaning to the leitmotif of Slovakia’s EU Council Presidency – namely, how to confront EU fragmentation. In practical terms, Slovakia’s diplomacy would be tasked with managing tricky negotiations over legislation to implement the February EU-UK deal on curbing social benefits to future workers in Britain arriving from Central Europe. This will be no easy task as other member states may wish to benefit from the precedent of an EU decision on the British social system. If managed well, however, Slovakia’s EU Council Presidency could succeed in closing the current Brexit debate.

More broadly, a positive outcome in the UK would create both the space and momentum necessary to deal with the common EU agenda. Bratislava would be able to count on wider political support for its presidential priorities, which are likely to include measures related to the functioning of the digital single market and the securing of an Energy Union. Additional initiatives would include legislation aimed at underpinning the fiscal and banking arms of the Eurozone and an enhancement of control over migration through the European Border and Coast Guard. Moreover, a British yes vote would help to start negotiations on revisions to the current EU financial perspective lasting until 2020.

If, however, the UK decides to leave the EU, Slovakia would preside over a divided Council with no pre-written template for dealing with London’s exit. This situation would put many plans for the Council Presidency on the back burner. Rewriting the EU budget or enhancing the digital single market might prove to be too daunting in light of a British exit. With divisions among the remaining EU-27 and a potential shrinking of the EU ahead under this scenario, it would be difficult to imagine integration leaps in the Eurozone.

To conclude, a vote to leave the EU in the UK would increasingly intensify a divisive debate on the EU in Central Europe. It would also deepen differences in political reactions towards Brussels across the region. While Slovakia would focus on crisis management tasks through the Council Presidency, other Visegrad countries could open fresh debates on their respective terms of EU membership. Although Central Europe would be better served by a British decision to remain in the EU, political and economic actors in this region must equally anticipate a less pleasant scenario.

Paweł Zerka, Head of Foreign Policy Research, WiseEuropa think tank, Warsaw

Last January, Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski surprised many observers in Poland and abroad when he announced that Great Britain (not Germany) would become the country’s major partner in the EU. Some of the government’s most devoted advocates presented it as evidence of its dedication to keep the UK in the EU. However, given a persistent technical tie between Brexit supporters and adversaries, the government of Law and Justice seems to have taken a rather risky bet. To be sure, its “British affair” will make sense only as long as the UK does not dare to exit – and even then only to a limited extent.

If the Brexit option prevails, Poland and the other Central European countries may find themselves in a significantly less friendly EU than the one that they had entered a decade earlier. An “equal sign” between Europe and the EU, which after the cold war almost became an axiom, will cease to apply. Most probably, the EU’s crawling disintegration will take the form of strengthened integration in narrower circles, such as among the Eurozone’s western members. Countries of Central Europe, most of whom are still outside the Eurozone, will be increasingly pushed towards the EU’s periphery, unless they accept the rules of the game preferred by the region’s unrivalled hegemon, Germany. With the UK out, and assuming France’s further repli sur soi, it will become even harder than today to provide a counterweight to German ideas for the EU, especially given the current polyphony within the V4. In such a new EU, the psychological map of the region would also change, reminding Central Europeans of their geographic proximity to Moscow.

Of course, events would transpire much differently with the Brits staying in. The UK may thus become a valuable partner for the Polish conservative government if it continues to seek a multi-speed EU of variable geometries, with a stronger role of national capitals and greater emphasis on the single market vis-à-vis the Eurozone as the major champ of European integration. However, there would be clear limits to such an alliance. Warsaw should not forget that the triangle linking it to Berlin and London will always have three sides.


‘A view from Central Europe’ is a monthly blog-style publication providing a platform for young and up-coming thinkers from the Visegrad Group – Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland – to reach an EU wide policy-focused audience. The project aims to stimulate dialogue between the V4 capitals and European opinion-makers on relevant EU topics with strategic implications for the region.

‘A View from Central Europe’ series is edited by Milan Nič and Jana Psarska.

This project is supported by the International Visegrad Fund.