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How EU leaders should handle Brexit

by Hugo Dixon | 15.12.2016

Excluding Theresa May from tonight’s EU summit dinner was a mistake – albeit an understandable one. Britain has done a lot to irritate the EU in the months since the referendum vote. One can see why the other 27 leaders and Donald Tusk, the European Council president, want to have an informal chat about Brexit over their Christmas feast without a bad fairy.

But both sides need to avoid winding one another up – and responding to provocations. As Michel Barnier, the European Commission’s Brexit negotiator rightly says: “Keep calm and negotiate.”

Respectful negotiations will mean we are more likely to avoid an acrimonious divorce that would be bad for both sides. They also mean there will be a greater chance that the British people will change their mind and decide they would prefer to stay in the EU after all when they see what Brexit means. By contrast, rabid Brexiters will use anti-British rhetoric to inflame passions at home, making it hard for pro-Europeans to make the case that the UK should stay in the EU.

Angela Merkel should know the script from her experience with last year’s Greek crisis. Whenever her finance minister Wolfgang Schaeuble made antagonistic comments about the Syriza government, he was demonised in the Greek press. Britain’s pro-Brexit press would be just as bad.

Lots of provocations

Of course, there are provocations. Boris Johnson last month snubbed a meeting of EU foreign ministers to discuss Donald Trump’s election, telling Europeans to end the “whinge-o-rama” over the result. Our foreign secretary also offended the Italians by implying they had little to export other than prosecco. David Davis, meanwhile, made a patronising remark about how he might consider a transitional deal to be kind to the rest of the EU – when it will actually be Britain that will be hurt most if we fall off a cliff at the end of the two-year negotiating period.

EU leaders will no doubt find many other occasions to get their blood up before the talks are finished. But they need to keep their cool.

The key to doing this is to keep reminding themselves that the EU and Britain need each other more than ever. Trump’s election puts the world’s rules-based economic and political order – which has been crumbling in the past decade – under further strain. It is also a shot in the arm of Vladimir Putin. Meanwhile, the fall of Aleppo and Turkey’s descent into authoritarianism are the latest signs of the turmoil in the Middle East.

All this is a threat to the security of both the EU and Britain. Post-Brexit we won’t be well placed to confront the dangers together – even if the divorce is smooth. If it is bitter, the chances of successful cooperation will go out of the window.

Britain may change its mind

EU leaders should also keep one eye open for the possibility that the UK may change its mind on Brexit. In recent months there have been a few glimmers of hope.

One is the High Court’s judgment that the government must get parliamentary approval before launching formal divorce talks. The Supreme Court is expected to confirm this in the New Year. Another is the Richmond Park by-election, where the pro-European Liberal Democrats overturned a huge majority held by the Brexiter Zac Goldsmith. Yet another is the fact that parliament has found its voice and called for May to produce her Brexit plan – so it can be debated properly before she triggers Article 50.

Few MPs are currently willing to say they want to stop Brexit. But the prime minister looks like she is getting bogged down before the talks have even started. If she comes back with a bad deal in 2018, parliament may refuse to ratify it and, instead, call for another referendum to see if the people still want to leave. Given the EU’s desire to finish negotiations by October 2018 so the European Parliament has time to ratify the deal, there would be time for Britain to consult the people again.

Don’t punish Britain

But for these initiatives to have much chance of bearing fruit, European leaders must themselves play a long game. Part of the answer is not to punish Britain, as that will backfire.

Of course, the EU must pursue its own interests. That includes making sure that Britain isn’t able to cherry-pick the best bits of membership while avoiding the obligations. Otherwise, there would be an incentive for every other country to seek similar deals and the whole project would unravel.

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But the EU must also be fair. It is, after all, a rules-based organisation. It won’t just be British populists who will use any hint of unfairness to make political capital. Anti-European demagogues across the continent will play on the fact that Brussels is being beastly to Britain as a way of drumming up support in their own countries – just as they did after the EU was seen to be bullying Greece last year.

They should also go out of their way to praise Britain in areas that are not central to the divorce negotiations.

For example, why doesn’t Angela Merkel say how much she values the UK’s help in keeping a strong line on sanctions against Putin? Or why doesn’t Francois Hollande say he appreciates the way British intelligence is helping fight Islamic terrorism? And how about Italy’s Paolo Gentiloni saying he’s grateful that the Royal Navy is combatting people-traffickers in the Mediterranean?

If Europe’s leaders are able to show they value Britain, it will be much easier for pro-Europeans in the UK to make the argument – when the time is right – that it should stay in the EU. British prime ministers might then be at the dinner table for many Christmas feasts to come.

This article is being published simultaneously on E!Sharp

Edited by Sam Ashworth-Hayes

4 Responses to “How EU leaders should handle Brexit”

  • Seems sensible and pragmatic enough
    Though, as a continental myself, I find it rather vexing and too easy on the UK side after they plunged all EU countries into extra tumults, political and economic, after their failure to deal with own european psychodrama.

    Right now for example, I find the Irish republic position extremely low-key. Willing to endure economic pains in some sector in exchange for the UK looking for a EEA partnership at the very least. Had the position been reversed (or say the irish had been the USA or Chinese), I have no doubt that extra economic/financial compensations would have been asked.

    I think that’s worth repeating : for decades the UK has been more than just an awkward partner, it has also been an hostile partner trying to sabotage EU integration through various means either because of the “rationale” of centuries-old policy of not letting any hegemonic power takes place (even a begnine and pacifist one like the EU) or as a convenient scapegoat for domestic politics.

    that’s why, personally, I’m very much of the non-revocability of article 50.
    once the process has been started, irrespective of whether the deal offer to the UK by the EU is deemed satisfactory or not, the UK should be out.
    then, and only then, should they decide democratically whether to reapply or not once they have thoughtfully made up their mind.

    that this will cause much harm and disruption all around is very much plain for me to see (I’ve been an irish resident since euro introduction).
    but without that much of a cold shower and some soul-searching on every sides, I don’t think these questions will ever be resolved.

    it’s not just the democratic deficit in the UK that is impressive, it’s also its profound misunderstandings (delusions, ignorance) about the realities of europe that will continue to plague whatever future relationships it has with its european partners.
    without real commitment by its people (and that means those 80% english, citi-dwellers and country-side gentlemen alike), poison will keep being spouted for the worse of both side.

    best regards,

  • The article and comment are right.

    There is no need for mutual acrimony and the UK should stop its irresponsable rethorics, both by press and government.

    The UK wants to leave, the government states it will and as of that moment is, rightly, out of the decision making loop, even though it is atill a full member.

    Any director leaving a company is shut out of strategy and decision making ince a resignation is tendered. This is no different.

    For the EU the EU’s interests have priority. A hard Brexit is the way to go unless the UKA offers a sweet enough deal for the EU27 to accept. The basis for a deal can be found in the tenet of either all four freedoms or none.In this one single point there is co compromise possible as this is the basis of the EU.

    The other none compromise point is that Euro clearing will leave the UK. The ECB will never accept euro clearing by a bank, or banks, not under ECB supervision.

    It is to be expected that a lot of financial services will leave the UK as Eurobonds most likely will be less issued by banks not under ECB control.

  • I have a problem with my failure to see how England could be happy with a government that exists of senior “politicians” who up to the 23rd of June were in the remain camp and the next day were pro-Brexit. Who then manage to almost get away with no plan and the only thing they manage to do well is to piss off those people who will actually be asked for major favours. In the light of that I think a drop off the cliff Brexit is the only option, certainly to show others that leaving the EU is going to be painful. Here on the Continent this week I found a lot of people think similarly.

  • While I agree with the general thrust of this article, since 23 June the torrent of insults and abuse thrown at the EU and European politicians from the U.K. has not been conducive to anyone on the continental side feeling charitable toward the U.K. It might have been nice to invite her to the Christmas dinner, but since she has, in effect, already given notice for the U.K. to leave the Club, she would have been an uncomfortable presence. Taken with Johnson’s snub and insulting comment when one considers Trump’s hatred of the EU and declared intention to “review” the US relationship with it, they have every right to be concerned about his election.

    It has been said by many on the EU side that they have no desire to punish Britain (not, I note, reported in the poisonous U.K. Media) , but the response from the U.K. side is the declare that the EU is “finished” or dependent on the U.K. financially, or that any and every statement from anyone in the EU is “childish, or “rhetoric”, or “posturing”. There are even overt expressions of a desire the destroy the EU and the Euro. So, it must be very difficult from the Eu side to take the British dilemma kindly or even to take a generous approach to the negotiations. I live in Germany, and I can tell you that the overall view here is that the U.K. government is trying to hold everyone else to ransom, hardly surprising, since we have a bit of “form” for it over the last 40 years. There is anger too, at the apparent deliberate intent of destroying the Union that has served Europe, by and large, very well.

    A lot less of the idiocy of Johnson, the sneering posturing of Davis and the sheer arrogance of Fox would go a long, long way to smooth the way to more amicable relations.