On request of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum, Conny Reuter, Secretary General at the SOLIDAR Foundation (Brussels, Belgium), prepared an essay on the European civil society challenges after the Brexit vote:

The British EU referendum has not really changed Europe, but the challenges have become clearer.  We have to acknowledge that a majority of British citizens has democratically expressed the wish to leave the European Union, a decision, which we need to respect, but which will have many negative consequences for the British people themselves as well as Europe.
Since the United Kingdom joined the European Union, a series of unfortunate compromises have paved the route, finally culminating in the Brexit vote. For too long, , European leaders have accepted these weakening compromises and given up on too many issues like the Social Union or the still missing regulation of financial markets, in order to keep the Union together.
The vote represents a historic break with the notion that European Integration is an ongoing, progressing project that will help to overcome the divisions among states and peoples and will ensure social and territorial cohesion, prosperity, well-being and peace for all.
The weeks after the UK’s EU referendum and the decision on making Brexit happen, the drama was far from over and could have been inspired by Shakespeare. The man who has been the face and voice of the Brexit campaign has been politically “assassinated” by his close friend and has taken flight rather than face the consequences. Now he comes back as Minister of Foreign Affairs not even being  ashamed in the Foreign Council.
The new Prime Minister who personally was against the Brexit now has to  lead the negotiations, and finally we remain all in  stand-by mode as the British government does not seem to be in a hurry to activate article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty with the major motivation to leave but not to lose internal market access or privileged trade relations – without free movement like stipulated in the Treaties.
The UKIP liar does not care about the consequences that Brexit will have on the future of the UK and  Europe.  He remains on a warm comfortable seat in the European Parliament. It was too late that many people in the UK woke up and understood that the Brexit campaign was based on false figures.
We have to state that British conservative elites have managed to mobilise against the so-called European elites and gained the trust of those of whose concerns they usually do not take care of. Nonetheless, those who were in favour of remaining did not manage to reach the hearts, souls, and minds of the citizens, to tame the fear factor. Instead, they generated fears themselves by warning about the negative consequences of leaving.
After Brexit, the UK itself may even break up. No one would have imagined such a scenario a few years ago: more tragedy than comedy! A tragedy also since MP Jo Cox was killed just some days before the referendum. Many would have expected a moral return or shift of the campaign, which finally did not happen, as the result shows.
What can be the way forward now? Besides the institutional issues, European civil society has a vital and pivotal role. For too long, we have  focused on the European level, working and advocating towards the institutions. This was successful on many issues although article 11 on civil dialogue still is not vigorously applied. We have to politicise the debate and enter as Europeans in the arena – at a national level.
The debate on the future of Europe is polluted by fear, anger, nationalist and populist arguments. Many argue on Europe in a way that is too defensive. It is not about speaking up Europe and present it in a better shape than it is.
The core question to win again the trust of the citizens in a promising European future will not be a better regulation: It is not an economy question, it is a social one. Too many people are left behind or feel left behind. They are attentive to the sirens telling them that in times of uncertainty caused by globalisation, by terrorism and by the multiple crises, the national level would be the heaven. Europe has to deliver on social and territorial cohesion showing that no one should be left behind, neither behind the Arctic Circle nor in the South.
With all eyes focused on the aftermath of the British vote, the presentation of the new EU Global Strategy by Frederica Mogherini did not get the attention it deserved. A Global Strategy should use the momentum created by the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) as an opportunity to understand and promote sustainability in all its dimensions – environment, economy, social and political development.
Civil society can make the difference in working on this sustainable development agenda, lobby for changing the paradigms of competitiveness, growth and free markets. The welfare promise is a promise and not an insult, regulation of financial markets is not overregulation, but protecting public budgets against abuse for saving private banks.
Fighting inequalities, promoting social investment is not modern romantic. Tax justice and a real financial transaction tax (FTT) could finance the investment in the future that costs today but pays off tomorrow – investment in education and training, public good and social, health, and care services, a more caring Europe bringing social protection and perspective, becoming again more attractive than any autocratic capitalism.
Concentrating on clear lines of action, our suggestion remains the same – to invest in social cohesion and consolidation, in upward convergence, in reducing inequalities showing that the EU is about more than an internal market and free trade and that Europe can protect against risks and uncertainties. The pillar of social rights should be a step in this direction and be more than a placebo, it should be the SDG’s our next roadmap.
Daring promoting a progressive Europe is our next civil society challenge.