Senior political figures on the continent sound warnings for the UKby Alex Dean / October 25, 2017 / Leave a comment
Seven months into the Brexit process, the challenge of disentangling ourselves from Europe remains as daunting as ever. Negotiations are going agonisingly slowly—and all the while the Article 50 timer is ticking down.
Prime Minister Theresa May’s recent trip to Brussels was meant to move things forward, with European leaders adopting a softer tone in the run-up to the event. It almost looked like being a success—until reports emerged of the PM begging Juncker for Brexit help during the Council dinner. Whether they are true is beside the point: Britain once again left Brussels humiliated, with little material progress having been made.
Added to this, May has now made a deeply troubling statement implying Britain will only enter into a transitional deal with Europe if it has already struck a free trade deal by then. That means yet another thing to negotiate by 2019, and it’s perhaps the biggest of the lot. The chaos isn’t letting up: this morning David Davis suggested MPs would not be given a vote on the Brexit deal until after Britain has already left Europe—only to be contradicted by the PM later on.
All of this is, of course, causing heated rows at home—but what is the reaction from our European partners? After all, it is the EU27 who will decide our fate. What is the atmosphere on the continent? Discussion with European political figures and think tankers painted a clear picture.
Radosław Sikorski, Polish minister of Foreign Affairs in Donald Tusk’s Cabinet from 2007-2014, took no prisoners in a comment to me over email. “Britain is about to discover that when dealing with the European Union as a non-member, the word negotiation is polite.” Harsh words from such a senior European statesman—and he wasn’t done yet.
“What is more likely to happen is that Britain—under time constraint and threatened with chaos at the borders—will need to adjust to the EU27 negotiating mandate.” The thinking is that the complexity of Brexit will leave us with no choice but to accept EU demands, while the remark on border control will cause alarm in Westminster.
“Britain… will need to adjust to the EU27 negotiating mandate”
Sikorski’s point about the timeframe came up more than once. “The British internal tensions don’t allow [you] to conduct the negotiations with an adequate pace,” Joaquín Almunia, former vice president of the European Commission, told me. “Time pressure will force May to take risks with her proposals, unless she continues to believe that a “no deal” is better than a “bad deal.’”
Whatever Britain’s domestic political problems, then, it will have to start making some viable propositions sooner or later—or else crash out onto World Trade Organisation terms, with all the associated economic chaos.
I also spoke to some contacts in Brussels-based think tanks, and asked for their assessments of the mood.
Rosa Balfour, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund based in their Brussels office, shared her thoughts—and again it was the point that Britain must get a move on. “Perhaps the most fitting adjective is frustration at the lack of pace in the negotiations,” she said.
“The EU and the UK have spent some time ping-ponging which court the ball was in… the reality is that the ball is in the UK’s court and it needs to deliver on the agreed plan: to reach a divorce settlement. The sweetener offered by the EU is that it will start thinking about the next steps—the transition arrangements and the future relationship with the UK.”
Merkel and co offered some consolatory words to this effect while the PM was in Brussels. Does that mean things are moving forward after all? Not quite.
“It is just thinking about it. The EU is firm and united around the idea that some key principles (citizens’ status, Irish border and finances) need to be settled first. If some words are softened, the message has not changed. If London continues to drag its feet, then the EU too will start preparing for a No Deal.”
Tomáš Valášek, Director of Carnegie Europe and former permanent representative of the Slovak Republic to Nato, agreed that it is Britain holding things up. “The UK government is seen, fairly or not, as doing a rather poor job spelling out and defending its preferred end state. The government in London is also broadly regarded as very weak. That does not exactly inspire respect. And without respect it is harder to get what one wants in negotiations.”
On the other hand, “no country seems likely to follow the UK out, so there is less need to make Britain’s departure miserable so as to discourage followers.” Valášek had one final comment, which was perhaps the most damning of all those I heard. “Brexit is simply not much of a story here,” he said. “The rest of the EU has moved on.”