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How the EU has bungled Brexit

January 7th, 2019

As Britain is going through the final stages of a psychiatric breakdown over Brexit, not much attention is being given to our surroundings. Time to take some slow shallow breaths and look around. How does the world look like from the EU?

The EU looks pretty ropey just now. At every level it is enervated. Its Commission is serving out its final months, a lame duck administration. The European Parliament is divided and set to get more so. The national governments are just as weak. Germany has a lame duck Chancellor. France has an unpopular president besieged by extra-Parliamentary protest. Sweden has no government.

Many of those countries with a functioning government are functioning to cause the EU hierarchy serious problems – Italy, Hungary, Poland and Romania are all causing headaches.

And then there is Brexit. The EU is due to lose one of its largest member states. This substantially damages the EU in at least eight ways. 

  1. Reduced heft – in a world of power blocs, the smaller the bloc, the less the power.
  2. Increased division against common adversaries. There’s a reason why Russia is pushing Brexit hard. 
  3. Reduced access to London’s financial markets. This is potentially a further drag on an already-anaemic European economy.
  4. The loss of Britain’s cultural contribution.
  5. Detachment from Britain’s contribution to learning (its universities rank far better than most in the rest of Europe, its Nobel Prize record is outstanding).
  6. Don’t laugh, but loss of access to Britain’s bureaucratic skills.
  7. Loss of Britain’s international connections – Britain is a leading member of many international networks, of which the permanent UN Security Council seat is only the most obvious.
  8. Loss of military puissance. Britain and France dwarf the rest of the EU’s capabilities. An EU army is not going to compensate, especially at a time when the USA is putting the hard squeeze on its NATO allies.

(And all this is without mentioning the loss of Britain’s financial contribution, which in the grand scheme of things is trivial.)

You would have thought that the EU would have approached Brexit negotiations so as to minimise some at least of these downsides. It has done the opposite.

It claims to have prioritised the integrity of the EU as a system in the drawing up of its negotiating position. This would not have been inconsistent with minimising some of these downsides. 

To take a small but telling example, Britain was excluded from nominating European Capitals of Culture for 2023 because it would have been ineligible under existing rules. But non-EU cities were eligible and Istanbul and Reykjavik have already held the title in the past. A minor rule change would have offered a small symbol of continuing cultural links. Instead, the EU chose to symbolise its attachment to mindless bureaucracy.

There was always a high risk of Britain leaving the EU on alienated and hostile terms. By their stance, the EU hierarchy have done their damnedest to ensure it. Even a late reversal of Brexit is likely to cause at least as many problems as it solves. This state of affairs is no more in the EU’s interests than in Britain’s. 

Fortunately, the careers of the culprits on the EU side have suffered appropriately. Jean-Claude Juncker will cease to be President of the European Commission later this year. He will not be missed. Arguably he should have resigned in 2016, as David Cameron did, his authority shot to pieces by the failure of a central plank of his campaign.

Instead he lingered on fairly pointlessly. His most newsworthy interventions in recent months have been to have a needless argument with Theresa May and to paw at a colleague’s hair.

His elevation had been controversial in the first place. Endorsed by the EPP as their Spitzenkandidat (nominee for the presidency) for the last European elections, Jean-Claude Juncker’s lack of suitability had been much-discussed even before the European Council met to consider the appointment. David Cameron had fought a fierce and utterly unsuccessful battle to resist the concept and the man

Ironically, the mood among European leaders seems to be shifting: Emmanuel Macron is in the majority of the European Council that has voiced opposition to the idea of automatically picking the Spitzenkandidat of the leading bloc in the European Parliament. Commission President Juncker has managed to discredit himself to the extent that the mechanism by which he achieved his position is now in serious jeopardy.

His chief Brexit negotiator will be hoping the Spitzenkandidat system does collapse. Michel Barnier had made no secret of his ambition to become Commission President. He had stood against Jean-Claude Juncker in 2014. His ambitions for 2019 were trailed far in advance. As a man in his late 60s, this must be his last chance.

But his failure to promptly agree a Brexit deal wrecked his chances of securing the EPP nomination. His best chance now looks for the 2019 European Parliament election to produce a chaotic result and for him to emerge as a compromise candidate from the mess. The chaotic result looks very possible but with the EPP Spitzenkandidat an ally of the German chancellor, his chances of being the compromise candidate do not seem particularly strong.

The EU will survive the year. It is unlikely particularly to prosper or to finish the year stronger than it started it. It urgently needs to find more visionary leadership.

Alastair Meeks