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Responding to Brexit: taking the political initiative

This three part series considers key inter-related aspects of the current political upheaval facing the citizens and countries of Europe. This first article examines how the European political class should respond.

lead January 28, 2017. President Donald Trump, having spoken to Chancellor Merkel for 45 minutes, on the phone to President Putin. Wikicommons/Sean Spicer, White House press secretary. Some rights reserved.The week after the UK voted to leave the European Union, Nigel Farage went to the European Parliament and bragged that this was the beginning of the end for the European project. Most MEPs laughed, while government leaders and EU Commissioners trotted out well-worn clichés about Europe’s resilience. They didn’t sense the danger. They do now.

Europe’s political leaders are starting to acknowledge that this nationalist and authoritarian upsurge intends to destroy both the trans-national structures of post-war Europe and the values that have underpinned them. The flow of barbed asides, tweets and comments directed against both Europe and Germany from US President Trump and his closest associates just keep on coming.

These trends have not just dropped from the sky. Two decades ago the most hard-line neo-Conservatives organised a key influential think-tank, the Project for the New American Century, which strove to create a unipolar world revolving around US global leadership.

Their supporters dominated the first George W. Bush administration but their hopes for American hegemony foundered in the killing fields of Iraq. Trump offers an even more aggressive, nationalistic version of that dream. The official slogan is ‘Make America Great Again’ but the reality is that he intends to Make America Supreme Again. Alongside China, an effective European Union with a Europeanised Germany at its heart is one of the main obstacles standing in his way. A fragmented Europe of small nation states is his strategic goal. Farage has paved the way; he hopes that Wilders, Le Pen and Grillo will follow. He envisages a crumbling Europe where a succession of pliant European politicians will then journey to the White House pleading for favours. Theresa May is the template. None of this is inevitable. However, to avoid this doomsday scenario Europe has to change – and fast. The immediate challenge is how to respond to Brexit. To avoid this doomsday scenario Europe has to change – and fast. The immediate challenge is how to respond to Brexit.

The ‘nationalist plan’

Trump and the nationalists want to break up Europe. They want the hardest, sharpest possible Brexit. They have succeeded in taking Theresa May’s government down that path with Labour following timidly in tow. It needn’t be that way. But that requires new leadership, flexibility and imagination from Europe’s political leadership.

Firstly, the EU should take the political initiative. It should state its negotiating stance in a proper White Paper. This should clearly declare that for reasons of economics, geography, history and culture a close working partnership between the UK and the Continent is in the interests of both parties. In the twenty first century, economics has leapt the boundaries of the nation state. Our economic, financial and commercial lives are inextricably intertwined. This is true not just in classic engineering industries such as cars and aircraft with their lengthy supply chains, but also in areas such as the processed food industry, banking and tourism. The removal of the UK from Europe’s Single Market would seriously weaken both partners.

A participation agreement such as occurs with both Norway and Switzerland would help to retain Europe’s overall cohesion and economic effectiveness. At the same time the White Paper should stress the importance of on-going collaboration in the fields of science, technology and research so that there is no fracturing of the European-wide research community.

Secondly, discard the wooden clichés and negative rhetoric that keeps recurring in the statements of Donald Tusk, Jean-Claude Juncker and co. Drop the argument that the UK must get a worse deal than it had before. The fact is that the very act of political exclusion puts the UK in a much worse position, since in any Single Market access deal, it would be signing up to a set of rules which from now on it will have no role in setting.

No more secret negotiations

Thirdly, Europe should take the democratic initiative. This should not be a secret negotiation behind closed doors, as the UK government desperately desires. Having set out its negotiating objectives in a White Paper, the negotiating team should report monthly to the European Parliament and give the Parliament the opportunity for discussion and debate.  In this way it would be acting as the vehicle for scrutiny and accountability of the whole process, thereby wresting control away from the UK government and reducing the impact of an assiduous flow of leaks to its favoured newspapers. Regular Parliamentary discussions would be precisely ‘the running commentary’ that both the British and European publics are entitled to know about and of which the UK government is so scared.

Fourthly, the EU should unilaterally indicate that it will extend the negotiating period beyond the stated two years. That power lies with the Council of Ministers under Article 50.  Such an extension would accord with Angela Merkel’s statement immediately after Brexit that “ in the European treaties there is a clear set and orderly procedure for member states who want to leave the European Union. This procedure involves several years of negotiations…”[1]  This gives the time necessary for a complex set of negotiations to be completed. But it also means that the EU’s offer to the UK remains on the table until after the next UK General Election. In this way, the ‘soft Brexit’ option – Britain managing migration within the Single Market – would be a viable proposition for all opposition parties to campaign for. Give the electorate a choice as to whether to pursue the current government’s proposed abrupt rupture from Europe and its associated headlong embrace of Donald Trump or whether it prefers the less disruptive option.

It would remove the unrealistic call for a second referendum but give the electorate a choice as to whether to pursue the current government’s proposed abrupt rupture from Europe and its associated headlong embrace of Donald Trump or whether it prefers the less disruptive option. This offer would provide the best conditions for Europe to retain cohesive working relations with the UK. The UK government will dislike intensely this approach but many businesses and companies will quietly welcome it. Already, both the Institute of Directors and the British Chambers of Commerce have proposed an extension of the negotiating period to give the necessary time to enable effective economic arrangements to be put in place.

Strategic nous

The European project is facing a dire crisis. This 4 point plan would give a serious chance for a British departure from the European Union with the least damage. And it would show that the EU has the strategic nous and imagination both to address issues such as migration and to put those advocating Europe’s break-up on the back foot.

Linked with this plan Europe has a number of strong cards to play. Just to suggest three. Firstly, if the UK does not play ball, then it is clear that the exclusion of vast swathes of the service economy from the Single Market will be profoundly harmful to the UK. The absence of ‘passporting’ facilities for banking, financial, accountancy, legal and other services will have severely detrimental impacts on many parts of the UK economy. The EU should avoid raising the stakes in areas which would be mutually harmful, as May did in her speech in threatening to withdraw security co-operation.

Secondly, the EU should signal publicly that should the UK leave the Single Market then the EU would unreservedly welcome Scotland as an immediate full member. The EU needs to say clearly to the Spanish government that there is no comparison with the situation with Catalonia. Spain is neither proposing to leave the EU nor the Single Market. The EU project is being undermined. It needs to show that it is prepared to defend itself and welcome those such as Scotland who would want to join it should the UK pursue a hard Brexit. Thirdly, it could say that there would be no fast-tracking for UK passport holders at EU ports and airports. UK citizens would be treated as all other foreign nationals.

While there are strong cards to play, the EU should avoid raising the stakes in areas which would be mutually harmful, as May did in her speech in threatening to withdraw security co-operation. The White Paper should offer a proper cooperative relationship with the UK and help to avoid the conditions where Britain’s relations with Europe ‘fall off a cliff’ with disastrous results all round. The steps suggested here would regain both the political and democratic initiative for the EU. Are there European politicians with the flexibility and capacity to address the challenge? And UK politicians able to respond to them?

Next part of Responding to Brexit  – Returning to a social market model on migration

[1] Merkel statement 24 June 2016


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