The EU moves on

The EU moves on

Anyone who has been dumped will know the problem: what do you do next?  Bridget Jones was faced with exactly this dilemma.  She saw that she had two choices: to give up and accept permanent state of spinsterhood and eventual eating by Alsatians, or not.

The rest of the European Union has just been dumped by Britain.  It faces much the same dilemma as Bridget Jones faced.  And like Bridget Jones, it is choosing not.

Bridget Jones chose vodka and Chaka Khan.  The EU apparatchiki have also chosen the hard stuff (but Jean-Claude Juncker has yet to be seen dad-dancing to “I feel for EU”).

Freed of the brake that Britain put on developments, old integrationist aims have been dusted down.  The core of an EU army has been put forward.  New proposals on Europe-wide insolvency protection measures are being proposed.  The European Commission has sanctioned Apple, and Ireland, for their tax arrangements.  Ten countries are pressing ahead with a financial transaction tax.  Less Europe has so far found no takers.

In Britain the different camps have read into this what they want to see.  Leavers see this as proof that the EU was always going to integrate further and faster and that Remain’s lies to the contrary have been exposed.  Remainers see this as proof that without Britain’s influence the EU will develop in a way that is harmful to Britain (and to the EU’s own interests).  Take your pick.  Both can be true, of course.

Neither camp seems to have thought much about what this means for the impending Article 50 negotiations.  The news there is not good for Britain.  Right now the EU has a point to prove and Britain is the country against whom the point needs to be proven.

So in the short term, the EU will want Britain to suffer – in the words of the Maltese Prime Minister, “Most of my colleagues want a fair deal for both the UK and Europe, but it has to be a deal that is inferior to membership, so you can’t have the cake and eat it.  I don’t see a situation where Britain will be better off at the end of the deal.”  The EU will want others advocating withdrawal to be deprived of ammunition.

As a long term strategy, however, this makes no sense at all.  The EU should want Britain as a reliable neighbour, the more so because in many areas such as security it is a leader in the region.  It will want close cooperation with it on a whole host of subjects.  Alienating Britain is a really dumb plan for the long term.

So will cool reason win out in the Article 50 negotiations?  I very much doubt it.  There are too many different competing interests that have to be brokered and time is tight.  As the recent breakdown of CETA, the agreement between the EU and Canada, shows, problems can emerge for almost whimsical reasons.  Negotiations need to be concluded within two years of Article 50 being triggered – unless all parties unanimously agree to an extension, and even getting unanimous agreement to that might be difficult.  Some nation might always fancy their chances of extracting a ransom for their agreement.  Right now the EU favours tough exit terms and time is short to turn that round.

Theresa May is caught between on the hand for domestic reasons wanting to trigger Article 50 as soon as possible to get the ball rolling and calm Leaver nerves in Britain and on the other hand wanting as long as possible to allow cooler heads in Brussels and around Europe to appreciate the advantages of reaching a friendly agreement with Britain (and then persuading others).  It is a formidable challenge.

Theresa May is left in large part dependent on events.  The EU would only quickly change its default setting in a panic, and then anything is possible, as Turkey has adroitly shown in its handling of the refugee crisis.  Will an event that would change EU minds take place in the next two years?  That is unknowable but seems unlikely.  It may very well be that the single market remains irrational for longer than Britain remains solvent.  Stand by for a very messy break-up.

Alastair Meeks

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