Brexit: A wake up call for the EU, but will it listen?

By blaming “populism” for Brexit, the EU shows it is in denial about the undemocratic path it has taken.

A European Union flag, with a hole cut in the middle
An EU flag, with a hole cut in the middle, flies at half-mast outside a home in Cheshire after Britain's EU referendum [Christopher Furlong/Getty Images]

Defying the pollsters and the chattering classes, voters in the United Kingdom have chosen to leave the European Union, commonly referred to as Brexit.

Excuses are already flying – not only in the UK but across Europe. The opposition Labour Party was quick to blame UK Prime Minister (for now) David Cameron and the knives are already out for Labour’s leader Jeremy Corbyn.

Those in Brussels are blaming “populism” for the British rejection of the EU – a complete denial of the undemocratic path the EU has chosen over the years.

In truth, the British people were fed up with living under the yoke of Brussels. After successive treaties and subsequent transfers of national sovereignty to the EU, a majority of the population reached a breaking point.

In many ways, a Brexit was not a matter of if, but when.

Rejoining the world

Leaving the EU might bring some short-term uncertainty, but its departure will allow Britain to grow economically and internationally in the long run. Far from a vote for simply leaving the EU, Brexit means the UK is rejoining the rest of the world.

For many in the UK, the decision to leave the EU was a no-brainer. The UK is the world’s fifth-largest economy. It is a member of the 53-nation Commonwealth. It has a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and has a “special relationship” with the US. It has one of the most capable militaries in the world and possesses nuclear weapons.

The UK trades more outside the EU than it does with the EU (and will continue to trade with Europe after it leaves the EU). Even though fewer than 6 percent of UK businesses trade with the EU, all have to implement the EU’s red tape and regulation.

READ MORE: World reacts as Britain votes to leave the EU

Democratic deficit

An organisation that started narrowly focused on the coal and steel industry in the 1950s has now morphed into a supranational organisation touching almost every aspect of life in every EU member country.

Over the years, power has been incrementally shifted to Brussels, away from the national capitals. Consequently, it has been moved further away from those who are affected most. The key decision-making bodies in the EU are largely unelected, and largely unaccountable to the national governments.

The EU is run by an unelected supranational commission. EU commissioners are not accountable to the member states, cannot be recalled by the member states, and break all allegiances to the member states once appointed.

There is also the Council of the European Union, formed with the various ministers from member states. Most of its decisions are made not by national ministers or leaders, however, but by unelected permanent representatives.

Then, there is the European Parliament. Although it is the only directly elected decision-making body in the EU, it is also the weakest. Although successive treaties have given the European Parliament marginally more power, it still lacks some of the basic legislative powers that are found in national parliaments. It does not even have its own right of initiative to propose legislation. It has to formally request the commission to do so on its behalf.

Because of the transfer of sovereignty over the years, the UK could not control its own borders, could not sign its own free trade deals (non-EU Iceland, with a population of 330,000, just signed a trade agreement with China) and regularly had its parliament and courts serve as the supreme law of the land.

Hardly an acceptable situation for one of the world’s leading powers.

A wake up call

Yesterday’s vote should be a wake-up call for the EU elite. Instead, it appears that they are still in denial. A meeting of the original six founding members has been called, thus marginalising the other 21 newer EU member states. This is not moving forward, this is moving back to 1952.

At a time in our history when the forces of globalisation, social media, and the internet are empowering the individual, the institutions of the EU are trying to centralise more power than ever before. This goes against the natural state of affairs of modern and liberal democracies in the 21st century. Power must be able to flow back to member states, not just away from them.

Europe needs to return to the fundamental basics of democracy. Instead of increasing policy competencies in opaque institutions in Brussels, power should be returned to the member states and to the people. The intrusive and excessive EU regulations need to be curtailed. Economic policies of growth need to be pursued.

This is not about destroying the EU. This is about the supremacy of the nation state and the sanctity of national sovereignty. The UK now has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to show that life can flourish outside the EU.

READ MORE: Dutch and French far-right parties call for EU referenda 

But the other member states will have a fight on their hands: Clawing back powers from Brussels will be no easy task. As the people living in the EU become more disenchanted, and the elite in Brussels become more aloof, there is no other alternative going forward.

Whatever happens post-Brexit in the EU, it cannot be business as usual.

Luke Coffey is a research fellow specialising in transatlantic and Eurasian security at a Washington DC-based think-tank. He previously served as a special adviser to the British defence secretary and was a commissioned officer in the United States Army.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policies.