Britain’s predicament is serious but Brussels has problems of its ownby David Henig / January 14, 2019 / Leave a comment
It is easy for those in other countries to survey the carnage brought by Brexit to UK politics and feel a certain smugness. Hurtful for many of us in the UK, but we can understand why other countries who have felt us to be arrogant in the past are not feeling terribly sympathetic. In the EU in particular you hear a lot that while they were sad after the vote, this is now over and the EU will continue just fine.
They should avoid such complacency. The EU may not have the immediate problems that the UK has, it may not be on the verge of collapse as some Eurosceptics like to claim, but there are underlying factors that should worry them and us.
There’s no doubt that the EU faces challenges in the form of upcoming elections, the continuing migration problems, and a groundswell of populism across the bloc. There’s also the perennial question of the future of the euro, although as the former Treasury Permanent Secretary Nick Macpherson acidly tweeted last week “Every week since the euro’s inception 20 years ago the Telegraph has predicted its demise.”
Very rarely have we heard discussion from Brussels about the changing dynamics of the EU without the UK, the fact that the largest trade deal of the next Commission, 2019-2024, will be with the UK, and the lack of any coherent vision yet underpinning that period.
As a regular traveller between London and Brussels it sometimes feels like I spend too much time in London explaining that the EU is not about to collapse, that’s just the way it works, but possibly not enough talking about serious issues of the future in Brussels.
Consider the changing dynamics of the European Council after Brexit. At the moment the UK, France and Germany form a perfect uneasy trio of large members, where the UK tends to push more open, competitive developments, France tends to focus more on the preservation of the EU rulebook, and Germany is something of a balance between the two, but often leaves decision-makinguntil late in a process. Both France and the UK have regular allies, with the UK’s typically including the likes of Sweden, the Netherlands, and Ireland.
The balance without the UK is obviously uncertain, but is likely to be more at the cautious end, potentially frustrating the UK’s former allies. Germany is said to have tacitly encouraged the formation of these into a group known as the New Hanseatic League, but without active support from a large country they will struggle to set the agenda. The likelihood therefore of the EU continuing to pursue an open, competitive agenda is reduced.
Turning away from an open agenda could mean problems in progressing trade talks with Australia and New Zealand as well as the already difficult talks with the likes of the South American trading bloc Mercosur. To an extent the EU will have some breathing space having recently completed agreements with Canada and Japan, though it is not clear beyond those above where the next trade agreements will come from. Except of course for that with the UK.
Future relationship talks between the EU and UK will not be straightforward. Under Michel Barnier’s leadership the EU has maintained unity while talks have progressed. The unity will be harder to achieve in future talks, and is likely to come at the cost of speed of negotiations. The extent to which the UK will be allowed a close relationship is not just going to be a question for us, the EU will also need to decide what programmes the UK can remain part of and under what terms. Given that there is no precedent for a country leaving the EU, there are likely to be tough decisions to be made.
This will have to come within the context of the next Commission, to be formed after this year’s European elections. The elections themselves are likely to see an increasing representation from populists, making passage of measures through the European Parliament more difficult. The elections will be followed by the appointment of a new Commission President to replace Jean-Claude Juncker, a process that will see tension between MEPs and member state governments. The process to in turn appoint a new Commission may not be straightforward.
The programme of the Commission will then have to be set, and right now the cupboard is looking relatively bare of ideas. In the current period there were major trade agreements to negotiate and significant amounts of work on the digital single market to progress. There is currently no obviously significant legislative agenda for the next Commission, meaning that legacy issues such as those mentioned earlier could dominate. Of course there is time to change this, but the current state of play will be worrying many across the EU.
None of this means that the EU faces terminal problems, or a future period as fraught as that in the UK. Yet it would be foolish for EU figures to be complacent given a number of challenges without obvious solution, no clear forward plan of work, and populists continuing to gain ground. The UK has provided no sort of model over the last two years, but there is a similarity in that both we and the EU need to find a clear path for the next period.