But EU unity is a lot harder to achieve in internal EU negotiations. You only need to look at budget negotiations to see the strain between and within the different EU institutions. Every additional euro spent on agriculture, for example, is one euro less for another EU policy, like defence or EU staffing. No-one gets everything they want. But the Brexit process does show that regular and open feedback throughout the process can foster trust between the EU institutions.
The EU needs a more nuanced debate
The EU also needs a more genuine debate about its future. Too often, it is framed in binary terms: you are either pro-European, or you are not. The result is a debate that is combative and too reductionist; it also alienates the many Europeans who don’t feel they fit in either category.
Some of this work has already started. In the run-up to the EU’s 60th anniversary celebration, the Juncker European Commission published a White Paper with five options for EU integration: from granting more power to the EU, focusing exclusively on the single market and agreeing to more flexible cooperation in other areas like foreign policy. The 2019 Parliament elections also saw the arrival of a more fractured but diverse EU Parliament. But if the EU is serious about its future, it cannot afford to limit these debates to the corridors of Brussels and Strasbourg.
The EU also needs to get much better at explaining what it does, who has responsibility for what and how citizens can, if they choose to, influence EU decisions. The EU is far from a homogenous blob: the EU Commission is accountable to the 27 EU governments. EU governments have common interests, but also many differences. Guy Verhofstadt is not the only MEP. And small member states do matter. Understanding how the EU works won’t necessarily make people like the EU more - but it might help them to understand how it impacts their lives and where it doesn’t (there are still many national policies, like education, tourism and health, over which the EU has a very limited say).
Brexit was a historic decision which will have implications for years to come. As the dust settles, the UK and the EU would be wise to reflect on what this means for their relationship - and crucially for themselves.
Copyright: OLI SCARFF / AFP