What Europe wants

Niccolò Milanese explains where the European Commission and its nation-states stand on Brexit's big questions.

January 21, 2019 · 7 min read
Mariano Rajoy, Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron. Photo by La Moncloa – Gobierno de España (Flickr)

Since the Brexit vote, the sustained unity of the EU27 over its attitude to the withdrawal of the UK has been in some contrast with profound uncertainty and change in national politics across Europe. The Catalonia crisis of 2017, the far-right’s ascendancy in Austria and Italy, the AfD’s electoral gains in Germany and weakening of Merkel, the incapacity of Macron to quell the Gilets Jaunes, or the backlash against Tsipras over the Macedonia name agreement… all these national issues point to the increasing political fragmentation of the continent. National institutions increasingly struggle to maintain governmental control. European decision-making on migration, eurozone reform, external policy towards Russia, Ukraine, the USA or Iran, has also been either blocked or based on very minimal agreement. But none of this has translated itself into divisions between the EU27 when it comes to Brexit. Quite the opposite: Brexit has been a politically useful reminder of fundamental common interests amongst the states of the EU27.

European nations are united in prioritising protecting citizens’ rights, ensuring the UK pays what it owes to the Union when it leaves, and ensuring no hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland are all topics of evident common interest to all Europeans, as is providing for a ‘transition period’ during which the UK-EU relations change and a new relationship is established. In contrast to the hateful attacks against Europeans in the UK, anti-British sentiment hasn’t reared its head as a significant factor in the negotiations. The ruling impulse is a pragmatic one – to protect the union, and its three million of currently living in the UK. 

The success of the Commission – which it is not modest about congratulating itself on – has been to keep all negotiations focused on these ‘withdrawal’ issues, and away from questions of the future relationship where different countries will have different priorities, and any consensus is likely to fragment. European leaders have, somewhat cynically continued to complain that the UK does not say ‘what it wants’ the future relationship to be, whilst simultaneously limiting negotiations exclusively to withdrawal issues.

But what happens if the outcome of these withdrawal negotiations fails? It’s clear for a long while that the negotiated deal has precious little support in the House of Commons – but we’re no closer to an answer to this key question. The Commission and EU27 have offered the predicatble response of ‘there is no alternative’. They have simply reminded the UK that,on the 29th March, the UK will leave the EU with or without a deal  – unless the Article 50 process is extended by unanimous consent of the members of the council, or the UK government withdraws its Article 50 letter.

The Commission is currently ramping up its preparations for no-deal Brexit, partly under pressure from panicking national capitals. A no-deal scenario will unquestionably be much more punishing for the UK than for the EU27. If it were to happen several European leaders – most publicly Emmanuel Macron – have calculated that the UK would have to negotiate a treaty with the EU from an exceptionally weak position, in the greatest possible urgency, in order to keep airplanes flying, supermarket shelves stocked and medicines available. What’s more, the UK in such a scenario would again need to negotiate with the EU27 all together (the EU has exclusive competence over trade deals) and not with 27 national capitals.

Still, there is nothing the EU prizes more than orderliness, and with good reason: the success of the EU has been to bring legal certainty to international relations between European countries. This legal certainty and predictability is the bedrock on which businesses and citizens conduct their activity and live their lives across borders, much of the time not having to ask questions about the possibility of diverging laws or discrimination against them in favour of nationals. A no-deal Brexit would potentially challenge this foundational certainty, not least because it would create immediately problems at the Irish border, and therefore bring uncertainty inside and across EU27 territory. There is reason for prudent Europeans to be wary of what might happen to the unity of the EU27 in such circumstances, and not to fall into a hubristic trap of seeing chaos restricted to the UK side, particularly if the chaos coincides with the European election period in which nationalists across the continent will be looking for ways of whipping up anti-systemic sentiment in favour of their racist and authoritarian policies.

It’s likely the EU27 would agree to extend the Article 50 procedure by some months; it can be extended until 1st July without causing legal problems concerning UK participation in the May EU elections. But there’s no enthusiasm at this prospect, given that it seems unlikely a majority for the current deal will emerge, even with a few month’s grace. Whilst the Labour party proposes a permanent customs union which would reduce somewhat the Irish border problem (although not solve it), many other EU capitals see such a halfway house for the UK – subject to the EU’s rules but not shaping them – as both an irrational surrender of sovereignty and as an unwieldy for the Union in the long term, and so struggle to take it seriously as a proposal.

There is no secret that most other European leaders would be delighted for the UK to stay in the European Union, and feel deeply uncomfortable about the whole process. If there were a real prospect of a new referendum with the option to remain, the European Council would almost certainly extend the Article 50 period to accommodate for it  – but if there were no option to remain, it is less clear this extension would be granted. With a British prime minister implacably opposed to the idea, and having watched the chaotic spectacle British debate for the past two years, there is justified scepticism that a clear demand for a new referendum might come in the next two months. If it does, the new question posed to the European Council will be whether it can offer anything in terms of a better deal than the status-quo if the UK remains.

Last time around the ’emergency brake’ on mobile EU citizens coming to the UK which Cameron secured from the Council did nothing but officially sanction the lies that EU migration to the UK is somehow endangering it, and thereby fuel xenophobic manipulation of these facts. So lessons need to be learned on all sides. The remain campaign will need to learn from the abject failure of the first referendum, and EU 27 would need to take a serious look at its offer to show if and how the ‘remain and reform’ option favoured by many is a viable option. In a year when many EU politicians will be looking at their own electoral survival, this may be a big ask: but it’s also perhaps the only way of ensuring stability for the European project as a whole, as it faces international and domestic challenges from all sides.

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