Institute of International Economic Law Hosts Europe After Brexit: A Conversation with the Ambassadors of France, Germany, Slovakia and the EU

October 18, 2016

The U.K.’s June 23 decision to withdraw from the European Union — commonly known as “Brexit” — was one of the top stories of 2016, in part due to the “sheer unexpectedness of it all,” according to Georgetown Law Professor Chris Brummer. So Brummer, the faculty director of Georgetown Law’s Institute of International Economic Law, convened a panel of European ambassadors at the Law Center on October 17 to help U.S. and international lawyers, law students and media alike understand the drivers behind the decision and what it means for the United States as well as for the E.U.

David O’Sullivan, ambassador and head of the E.U. Delegation to the United States, said that the decision was not so surprising to Europeans, given a host of U.K.-specific factors. “I think there’s always been a…strong body of opinion in the U.K. [that has been] reluctant and reserved about [E.U.] membership, if not outright hostile, so once you open the possibility of a vote on the subject — it was always going to be a close call,” O’Sullivan said.

A sense of frustration with economic and social policy since the 2008 financial crisis, immigration and uncertainty stemming from globalization were additional factors, he said. Peter Kmec, ambassador of the Slovak Republic to the United States, and Gérard Araud, ambassador of France to the United States, spoke particularly of the role that immigration has played in the “negative outcome,” in Kmec’s words.

“It’s a wide challenge that we are all facing, all Western democracies…” Araud said. “In the U.S., in the U.K., in France, and elsewhere, we have so many of our citizens who are dissatisfied and who are telling us they are dissatisfied in this way.”

The precise way the U.K. will leave the E.U., and what a post-Brexit world might look like, remains unclear (Article 50 of the Treaty of the European Union governs the exit of a member). Addressing what Brexit means for the United States, Peter Wittig, ambassador of Germany to the United States, noted that Brexit introduces another challenge to a Europe “already in a precarious state” after the 2008 financial crisis, the Greek debt crisis and the refugee crisis — which also becomes a transatlantic issue.

“I think there is reason to worry in the U.S. about the strength and the resilience of the European Union…,” he said, adding that with Brexit, the E.U. is losing, among other things, the second biggest economy in Europe. “This will be the most complicated divorce in history that we have ahead of us…we are all treading on entirely new territory.”

Brexit: A Lawyer’s Paradise?

Associate Dean James V. Feinerman, who introduced the speakers, noted that Georgetown “is one of the world’s great centers for the study of international affairs, and the Institute of International Economic Law is the focal point.” In addition to stellar programming presented by IIEL, Georgetown Law now offers students a unique seminar on Brexit and the Law, taught by Visiting Professor Jennifer Hillman and Adjunct Professor Gary Horlick. “If there’s one thing you can say with certainty…about Brexit, it’s going to be a lawyer’s paradise for many years to come,” O’Sullivan said. “So I congratulate you on those of you who have taken this option [the class] — because I think you could probably spend the rest of your life dealing with the subject.”