In Brussels, Brexit probably does mean Brexit

by John Wyles | 29.03.2017

Brussels was very composed when Theresa May’s letter triggering Article 50 was popped into the institutional letterbox at the European Council. How could it not have been after a tedious 9-month hiatus with very little happening since the June 23 referendum?

All necessary statements of regret have already been issued in calculated tones, from sad regret to blushful anger.  Nobody has dared think, let alone say, Brexit could be best for Britain’s national interest.  In private, when diplomacy has been parked for the night, “lunacy” has been a popular noun in many of the Union’s 24 official languages.

The Commission has tried not to waste the time spent waiting for the British to prepare their divorce papers. Jean-Claude Juncker, the Commission president, spurred on and guided by his extraordinarily powerful chief of staff, Martin Selmayr, has had technicians, lawyers and senior Commissioners work on options and negotiating scenarios.

Some of his time, but more of Donald Tusk’s over at the European Council, has been spent on encouraging member states to present a united front when they face David Davis and his colleagues during the many hours and days of negotiations that lie ahead. Tusk says Brexit is already bringing the 27 remaining members together.

However, that has not been difficult in these early stages. Until they adopt the negotiating mandate for the Commission’s Michel Barnier in a month or so member states can agree that they don’t want to be beastly to the British but that some beastliness is unavoidable. The implications and political fall-out caused by losing a major member of the club will leave lasting and painful scar tissue. There must be no risk of any other country seeing advantage in following the British lead.

The challenge for the 27 – as well as for the 28th – is to learn how much flexibility is legally possible and politically desirable in the making of any deal. How long before red lines are smudged or erased?

Around the end of this year is the probable answer. No early agreement is likely over the size of the UK’s financial obligations and quickfire declarations safeguarding the rights of EU citizens in the UK and their British counterparts on the continent should not be taken for granted. The British will be made to wait until these issues are settled before they can hope for free trade talks.

May and her colleagues would be wise to remember that searching for a Brexit agreement is not an overriding priority for the 27.  The pallid text of last weekend’s 60th anniversary declaration testified to the lack of common vision among EU leaders, even as they proclaimed that “Europe is our common future”.

Yet the problems crowd in. The eurozone must soon try to avert currency chaos by completing economic and monetary union. External borders must be secured against unrestrained migration and all 27 must face up to daunting security challenges. For some, the sooner the British are out of the door, the better.

“There can be no turning back,” Theresa May told the House of Commons today. She is probably right, although many millions of UK citizens will hope not.  But if negotiations break down or any eventual agreement is rejected by the Commons – or in a second referendum – there may be little stomach in Brussels or national capitals to begin yet another negotiation on British terms of membership. For better or worse, in Brussels Brexit probably does mean Brexit.

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    The last paragraph was slightly amended shortly after publication

    Edited by Luke Lythgoe