Expert View

Skipping Sibiu summit is May’s latest unforced error with EU

by David Hannay | 09.05.2019

David Hannay is a member of the House of Lords and former UK ambassador to the EU and UN.

Theresa May’s decision not to attend this week’s informal meeting of EU leaders at Sibiu in Romania (and it was her decision, not theirs) was yet another in the long list of unforced errors in her handling of the UK’s relations with the EU. It is just another occasion when the national interest has been subordinated to the need to avoid upsetting her own party supporters – a dwindling band, perhaps, but still capable of terrifying a prime minister whose hold on office is as tenuous as hers is.

Why is the decision to absent herself from the Sibiu meeting such a bad one? Well, the prime minister would have done well to heed the wisdom of an old French saying: “The absent are always in the wrong.” Charles de Gaulle tried an empty chair policy in 1965/6 and it did not work then. It is certainly not going to work now.

Every one of the matters under discussion at Sibiu will be of importance to the UK, whether we eventually leave the EU and negotiate a new relationship with it or, alternatively, remain a member following another referendum. In those circumstances, does it really make sense for us to voluntarily surrender any role in shaping policy decisions while we are still a member – to have less influence than, say, Malta or Luxembourg?

It is not as if the matters under discussion are trivial ones. Take the issue of migration into the EU. The UK has a major interest in strengthening the external border controls of our closest neighbours and in developing policies which will stem the flow of economic migrants from Africa and the Middle East. Or take the need to further develop the single market so that it covers more widely and more effectively service industries and the digital economy in which the UK is a leader.

And consider the desirability of weighing into the burgeoning debate over whether the EU should weaken its competition policy in order to promote “European champions” or rather to strengthen it to deal more effectively with large multinational companies which risk dominating our markets and which pay few of our taxes. And there is surely also a need to get involved in the fraught issues caused by the rise of populism and by the challenges to the rule of law which are surfacing in some member states.

On the international stage the need for the Europeans (including the UK) to have a collective response to the daily increasing attacks on the rules-based international order from the Trump administration is now urgent. In a week which has seen the tightening of US sanctions against Iran and their attempted imposition on our companies, the politicisation of the Arctic Council in the name of denying the reality of climate change, and threats of an all-out trade war between the US and China in open defiance of WTO rules, what has hitherto been a nagging concern is now moving towards a full and far-reaching crisis between the US and its European allies.

It is little short of tragic that none of these considerations seems to count in the national debate over Brexit and in the bizarre confabulations over customs unions and Irish backstops. Should we not rather be focusing on all the compelling reasons why Britain is better off influencing EU policy formulation than abdicating any such role?

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Edited by Luke Lythgoe

3 Responses to “Skipping Sibiu summit is May’s latest unforced error with EU”

  • Tragic, unbelievable error once more from the UK government. It is hard to comprehend how such a decision can be made to have the UK Prime Minister absent from discussions and decisions on matters of such importance for Europe.

  • Plain stupidity and a ridiculous teenager mentality of protesting anything that would impose and enforce rules and regulations on the poor soul characterized the attitude of brexiteers. Not attending an important meeting where the UK could at least bring forward an opinion on the matters discussed is indeed another matter of silliness just to placate a number of such unruly minds among the Tories. At best it demonstrates the complete lack of mental maturity there.