Let the EU make the best of Brexit

The letter of divorce has been handed out. Britain is on its way out of the European Union. 48% of those who voted in the hapless referendum may feel sad, most hitherto partners of the United Kingdom may feel sad. I do feel sad about this. And Theresa May should feel sad about it, since there is a rumour that she was once a Remainer. However now she has no other choice but try to make the best out of it. And the remaining EU countries want to make the best of it.

When thinking about the scenario what would have happened if the Remain side would have had won by a margin of 52:48, certainly a counterfactual history, or what would happen, if the letter of divorce would be revoked, still a possible scenario, although in my view extremely improbable, then Brexit may be seen as the more positive solution.

In the counterfactual case as well as in case of revoking the Brexit, the Leavers would certainly not have given up their case  – they never did for more than fourty years, whatever the majority thought. A reversal of Brexit would indignate the Leavers without really convincing the Remainers, and keep the country deeply divided. The europhobes would put an enormous pressure on the government to block any further integration, to discriminate EU-citizens, and to use all possibilities to opt-out wherever this were possible, to keep Britain outside of the Schengen area and out of the Euro. In the eyes of the other member states ever more cherry picking and more concessions would endanger the whole project. 

The law passed by the Tory-LibDem coalition that every new transfer of sovereignty would trigger a referendum would make negotiating with the United Kingdom a hasard for the ever closer union. The Remainers would not embark on a vigorous pro-european course but continue with the half-in-half-out approach existing before the referendum. When David Cameron played the renegotiation game while the rest of the Union was occupied with resolving the consequences of the financial and economic crises, some thought: life in the EU would be better without the islanders. 

Even if Brexit is damaging all of us, at least Brexit saved us from a member state, where half of the population did and does not want to be a member, where governments did not believe in a common European interest, and where the press would have continued to denigrate membership as a horrible mistake. It may be sad – but a clean cut may perhaps give more chances for better relations between Britain and the EU. Britain can no longer stop the ever closer union , and the union can no longer be blamed for British problems. A post-referendum Britain with a poisoned internal climate would be an extremely difficult partner, certainly not at all helpful for the necessary next steps towards integration. Therefore it is not at all sure that the 27 remaining members would even accept a letter revoking the Brexit.

There was criticism that Prime Minister Theresa May stroke a positive note in her speech at Prime Minister’s Questions on Brexit Day. She wanted to show optimism, but it sounded desperate. She did not prepare the British people for the difficult times to be expected. As the Prime Minister she certainly has to make the best of the situation, and when the best solution is not available, at least the worst results have to be avoided. 

The negotiation with the EU about leaving the club will not be easy, but most dangerous is the lack of a convincing policy between the extremism of the Brexiteers and the illusionism of the Labour leadership. The EU cannot and does not trust any of these two groups. This is producing a framework for the Prime Minister that makes the negotiations extremely difficult for her. For getting a good result, she has to struggle to be trusted. But she is linked to her cabinet, and David Davies, Boris Johnson, and Liam Fox are not trusted, and she is linked to her party, where nobody except Kenneth Clarke stood up for Europe. She has to negotiate for all British citizens. The new relationship should hold if by any chance Labour comes back to power. Labour was often not reliable on Europe. How to trust Jeremy Corbyn and his followers who feeds illusions about the consequences of Brexit and did not even debate the risks and damages in the Commons ? The EU will certainly not come back to any renegotiations any more. 

The negotiating team of the EU led by Michel Barnier is very qualified, but in the end the member governments and the European Parliament will have an important say in the whole issue. Theresa May once said that no result would be better than a bad result. This may backfire: every result will be bad, because it is about transferring Britain from a privileged position as a member of the club to the not at all privileged position of a non-member. The cost of the divorce is immense and there are some long-term committments to keep by Britain, like the pensions of those who worked for all members including Britain for decades. Article 50 is quite clear: the divorce and the negotiation about any new relationship are two different things. The settlement for leaving takes into account what the new relationship is likely to be, but that is not negotiated now. Certainly it is no mistake to think about the future relationship and prepare well for the next round, but this cannot be negotiated with Britain sitting on both sides of the table while it is still a member of the EU.

Now the EU of the 27 should make the best of Brexit. It can now define what is best with regard to the remaining member states. The United Kingdom outside of the EU is just another friendly third country, where a considerable part of the political class is very unfriendly towards the EU. The EU will have to take both facts into account: that the EU has friends in the UK, that can be excellent partners, and that there are adversaries of the Union. We should strive for the best agreement but with safeguards against those who deserve no trust. 

As Theresa May said, Britain is not leaving Europe, because the British Isles are not moved away into the Atlantic but stay where they are. The Prime Minister said she wants the EU to be successful. We should reciprocate: we want Britain to be successful. But both will now have to build the success on their proper effort. I have no doubt, that the British people will be able to work hard for that even when self-inflicted damage makes this more difficult. But a fundamental condition is realism in their approach to the rest of the world. What we saw after the referendum was the opposite of realism – it was a mix of illusions and grand-standing with stupitidy and fear of the europhobes.

The British Prime Minister is right – and so is the Leader of the Opposition: the best case would be if nothing changes at all. But why leave the EU then ? Is it just another renegotiation with the aim of keeping the rights of full membership only without conceding freedom of movement for unwanted continental foreigners, and without being subject to the jurisdiction of the European Court in Luxembourg ? Theresa May knows quite well that this is not true. Even the membership in the European economic area, where Norway or Switzerland belong, is bound to the principle of freedom of movement and European jurisdiction. That is why the Prime Minister has discarded the EEA membership and is only asking for a free trade agreement. However she wants an agreement that is much wider than any traditional FTA, reflecting the very close relationship between Great Britain and the European continent. But a relationship on the level of EEA members is closer than the Brexiteers are willing to tolerate, so whatever comes out it will be less than the EEA agreements.

From end of March 2019 onward the United Kingdom will no longer sit at the table in Brussels, where decisions are made. The other members have to decide if conditions for a free trade agreement with Britain are not just acceptable but also attractive for the European Union. Britain can take note of that and make a choice. When all relevant EU law, including standards and norms for goods and services, is transferred by an act of the British Parliament into British law, this may ease a free trade agreement. Britain can certainly change any of those laws later, but not without affecting free trade by new non-tariff barriers. No British vacuum cleaner can be imported into the single market without complying with EU standards.

There is a clear difference between a single market or a customs union and a free trade agreement. Some Brexiteers obviously do not know that difference. Customs controls and a lot of red tape will be in place even if no or low tariffs are applied. This will also be the case between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, as long as one is inside and one outside of the European Union. In case of Scottish independence, there would also be a customs control at the border between England and Scotland. The solution for this could be to form a customs union, but this would bring back the jurisdiction of the European Court in Luxembourg. Or one could try to make the customs border less visible by transferring the customs control to places inside Britain or the EU and have the transport to these places made in sealed containers. However traveller’s suitcases can be opened and personal belongings be controlled at the borders.

The common foreign and security policy will continue without Britain participating – neither in Brussels nor in Heads of Mission meetings abroad. We should seek an enhanced cooperation through NATO on security matters, but this will certainly be less than we have today. It could be in the interest of both sides to agree upon some special cooperations in fighting terrorism, drug trafficking or organised crime. All such agreements would be concluded on a give and take basis.

Financial services in the EU will not only have to work under the rules of the EU but also under EU jurisdiction and control. It has always been a concession to the United Kingdom to allow the clearing of euro accounts in a non-euro country. Now the EU will take the opportunity to finally allow that sort of clearing only in a Eurozone-country.

Britain has always fought for a wider liberalisation of services inside the EU. The European commission was committed to do that by the Lisbon agenda. But the approach towards liberalisation of services was different from liberalisation of trade. The European method had normally been to harmonise norms and standards in a way that they could be applied in all member countries. But in services the standards of the country of origin were declared applicable in all the other member states. This was very much supported by Britain and the Dutch Commissioner Bolkestein. When Hungarian service companies sent cheap labour as contractors to German employers, the unions realised that this could lead to a run to the bottom on wages and labour standards. I am sure that without Britain being a member these excesses of ultra-liberalism will stop.

Air and sea services between airports or ports of one country – the cabotage – are normally reserved to aircraft and ships from that country. The EU single market in that sense works like a superstate treating all the territory as open for all companies from all member states, but definitely not for any third country – even in a free trade agreement this is rarely included. Airlines or shipping companies from the UK will be allowed to serve connections between Britain and the EU, but not inside the EU. Those who abhor the superstate must be very happy about this, because reciprocally EU airlines may no longer be allowed to fly between London and Birmingham, Bristol or Belfast.

The EU must now take the opportunity to make progress on all the topics where Britain was standing on the brake before: honouring the symbols of the Union and make it a real privilege to be an EU citizen, common consular services, a better coordination of security policy inside the EU, more social and environmental protection of the citizens and workers, enlargement only if the EU is really benefitting from it, more integration wherever this is necessary, more subsidiarity wherever this is possible..

The EU should help Britain to succeed. The greatest success – to be a member of the EU – is thrown away by the UK, so it is not so easy to help. However there are still left enough issues for an agreement. We should hold the negotiations in good will and with absolute professionalism. But when Brexiteers are insolent, call it insolent, when they talk rubbish, call it rubbish, and when they try to blackmail, call it blackmail. There is a huge number of British citizens who are sad about the whole development. The EU should talk to them directly through the new media ( Barnier should twitter a bit – and better than the greatest leader of all times and worlds, Donald Trump) and inform them about the policy of their own government and that of the EU, because the europhobe part of the British press will certainly continue the propaganda war against the EU and by that risk the further prospects of a good and friendly relationship.

The negotiations may become very nasty. But I hope that in the end we can really get a good result. If the British people benefit from it while extremist Brexiteers sneer at it, that would be a good test, that the result is good for all sides.