After a series of economic, social and political crises that have undermined the European project in the last decade, the real tsunami came – Brexit. By voting to leave, the British society set in motion a process which threatens the very existence of the European Union if other countries with strong Euro-sceptic parties follow. We were, once again, caught by surprise. Or were we?
In light of the obvious need to define the EU’s future-oriented interests, the Dahrendorf Forum initiated a foresight project , which aimed to set out different scenarios for the future relationship between the European Union and its neighbours (Ukraine and Russia, Turkey, MENA region) and strategic partners (United States, China) one year before the big vote. This forecasting exercise attempted to define the most likely trajectories, risks, new trends and the ‘unknown unknowns’. As a result of the project, eighteen scenarios have been developed and published in the Dahrendorf Analysis European Union in the World 2025 .
Just two months ago, when we presented alternative futures at the Dahrendorf Symposium 2016 , there was still an ongoing discussion about the possible outcomes of the Brexit vote. Now we know for sure that the British population opted for the UK to leave, but we do not know what consequences will follow, for the country itself or for the EU. What will the first divorce in the EU´s history look like? Will the European Union stay united or will other countries follow the British example?
To think about the unthinkable is exactly what the foresight analysis is designed to do. So what did the Dahrendorf Forum scenarios say about Brexit? Did they see it coming and, more importantly, what did they say about the implications? Finally, can the scenarios help better prepare for surprises in the future?
Two of our scenarios were entirely sure that there would be no Brexit. Dennis-Jonathan Mann (Federal Foreign Office), Johannes Thimm (German Institute for International and Security Studies, SWP) and Lora Anne Viola (Freie Universität Berlin) anticipated restored trust in the European project through the UK’s choice to stay in the Union, motivating members to work more closely on foreign and security policy, and for the UK to actively shape EU’s foreign policy. Quite less enthusiastic was Lisa Haferlach (Hertie School of Governance), who did not see any new beginning for a unified EU policy towards neighbours, such as Turkey, resulting from an averted Brexit in her scenario on the EU-Turkey relationship.
Moving away from the more or less optimistic camp to the negative one – four scenarios saw Brexit coming. In Sonja Kaufmanns (Hertie School of Governance), Gunter Rieck Moncayas (Konrad Adenauer Stiftung), Lena Ringlebs (American Academy Berlin) and Martin Thunerts (Universität Heidelberg) scenario on the future of the US-EU relationship, the UK leaves the EU. They interpret this as a strong signal for the Union – showing the readiness to dismiss EU membership in order to avoid intensive compromise around diverse issues and opening the door for other EU Member States seriously considering leaving the organisation. However, in their scenario, the story did not stop here. Due to the dysfunction of the Schengen agreement (for reasons of the migration crisis and the threat of terrorism, as well as Brexit), they expected a complete suspension of the Schengen agreement altogether. Following this radical development, the UK would seek a bilateral free trade agreement with the United States (one only has to look at recent news about Liam Fox’s current policy ) to keep its most important relationship alive and compensate for the losses in the Internal Market. Within the scenario, this leads to a growing tendency of bilateral partnerships in international trade relations. These developments ultimately lead to a failure of concluding the TTIP, as solidarity within the EU noticeably fades and the European Single Market loses its strength. In the final stage, the suspension of Schengen and TTIP, plus the loss of a common EU mainland through Brexit and economic proliferation lead to an ultimate failure of the Common Foreign and Security Policy. An enduring scepticism towards further integration and around EU competences leads to a fatigue of solidarity, which drives single Member States to the decision to withdraw from the common currency. In the end, the authors of the scenario anticipate a collapse of the Eurozone and therefore an economic recession followed by re-nationalization processes of individual Member States.
On an important side note: Due to these developments, the American government perceives the European Union as dysfunctional and focuses on bilateral or multilateral (with certain groups of Member States) agreements and subsequently retreats from its own relationship with the Union as a political partner.
In their scenario about the future of EU´s relations with the MENA region, Wiebke Ewering (Hertie School of Governance) and Benjamin Preisler (NATO SHAPE) also anticipated the Brexit camp winning. Mainly due to the argument of a sovereign handling of the immigration issue, they predicted that the United Kingdom would leave the EU after a two -year’s transmission period in 2019. Interestingly, following the same vein, they also foresee that Kurdistan will declare its independence from Turkey after a referendum. In response, they envision the Turkish government not accepting this decision and the Iraqi army declaring war on its own former Kurdish region.
In turn, Laura Krug (German Council on Foreign Relations, DGAP), Jana Puglierin (German Council on Foreign Relations, DGAP) and Christoph Klavehn (European Council on Foreign Relations, EFCR) expect not only Brexit, but also the subsequent departures of other Member States from the EU in their scenario for the relations between the Union and the United States.
The alternative future for the relationship between the EU and Ukraine presented by Maria Davydchyk (German Council on Foreign Relations, DGAP), Julia Kahrl (Federal Foreign Office), Felix Krause (Hertie School of Governance) and Evelina Schulz (European External Action Service) also puts its focus on the internal dynamics of the Union. This team highlights domestic and institutional challenges as the highest priority, amongst them Brexit, which leads to a profound neglect of any coherent foreign policy strategy. This is already visible as the Brexit discussions have taken all the attention away from the meeting of the European Council when the EU Global Strategy was presented by High Representative Frederica Mogherini. This tendency can lead to an overall lack of engagement with the strategy.
In sum, the scenarios developed within the foresight project link Brexit to negative implications, such as the end of the negotiations over TTIP, the dissolution of the Schengen agreement and a further decrease of political attention towards EU´s common foreign and security policy, which can lead to an overall declining importance of the Union as global player.
The Dahrendorf Foresight Project was a trail blazer, as it was the first time such a complex scenario approach was used within a project run by the Hertie School of Governance. As presented above, the outcomes offer inspiring food for thought and can be further developed towards substantial policy recommendations for decision-makers. The project has proven that an out-of-the-box, systematic and forward-looking analysis of the key forces that will shape the European Union’s future relations with its neighbours and strategic partners can predict surprising developments. (For more about the methodology see: Structured Analytic Techniques for Intelligence Analysis by Richards J. Heuer Jr. and Randolph H. Pherson (eds.), CQ Press; 2014.)
Our scenarios do not only cover the issue of Brexit, but also tackle the current happenings in Turkey. Lisa Haferlach writes in her scenario about a failed coup d’état in 2020 which leaves Turkey in a state of open enmity between parties and open violence in society. Does this ring a bell?
Read about further possible developments in the near future: Monika Sus, Franziska Pfeifer (eds.) European Union in the World 2025. Scenarios for EU relations with its neighbours and strategic partners. 
About the authors:
Monika Sus is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Hertie School of Governance and is responsible for the umbrella project within the Dahrendorf Forum.
Franziska Pfeifer is a Research Associate to Helmut Anheier for the Dahrendorf Forum at the Hertie School of Governance.