Brexit: Opportunity or Distraction for the EU?
Theresa May’s speech from the Home Office on the 17th of January put an end to 6 months of uncertainty as to the broad course that Great Britain will adopt following Brexit. Nicknamed “Theresa May-be” by some, the British Prime Minister (PM) backed up her “Brexit means Brexit” comment from last June with a 12-point plan for Great Britain’s future. Seemingly confronted with a choice between two alternatives—a “soft Brexit”, meaning a Norway-style deal in which Great Britain pays for access to the Single European Market, and a “hard Brexit”, or a complete breaking off of ties with the European Union (EU)—May picked the latter. This opposition between a soft and hard Brexit has been integral to a narrative that seeks to describe Great Britain as being at crossroads and oversimplifies a complex and murky situation. Regardless of which path she takes, however, Brexit will undoubtedly herald a shift in E.U. politics, and it remains to be seen how the power vacuum left by the United Kingdom will be filled.
May’s stance remains largely inconsistent, with the path ahead for the United Kingdom (UK) still out of focus. In her speech, PM May reaffirmed her commitment to shaping a post-Brexit “global Britain,” in stark opposition to the important anti-globalisation dimension of the Leave vote. This global Britain will be constructed on bilateral trade deals, with the USA for example. The UK will also negotiate a new trade deal with the EU as soon as Brexit talks end, and seek to renegotiate over thirty EU free trade agreements. These Brexit talks will automatically end two years after Article 50 of the Treaty on EU, which will properly begin Brexit, is triggered, although May hopes to receive approval from Parliament to begin in March. Article 50’s two-year time limit has been described as a “cliff edge,” as the UK will be struck out from the EU at that point, no matter the progress of talks.
Nevertheless, May claimed to be confident that a fair deal could be reached, as it is in the UK’s and the EU27’s interest. For the EU to go for a punitive deal, as a deterrent against other member-states exiting, would be “an act of calamitous self-harm,” May warned. Dispelling doubts as to her views of the EU, May insisted that the UK would benefit from a strong EU and prosperous European Integration. However, she stated that “no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal”, an attempt at a veiled threat that reads more as a defensive bluff .
May’s threat to the EU, as relayed by her Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond, is to transform the UK in a Singapore-style economy, which Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the opposition, described as a “low-tax, corporate taxation, bargain basement economy on the offshores of Europe”. This “Plan B” is meant to show how serious the UK is about getting a fair deal, though it can also be interpreted as a demonstration of helplessness. If implemented, it would likely alienate anti-globalisation Brexit voters and anger green-conscious voters, as the UK could also slash environmental protection regulations. It would politically hurt May more than it would the EU, since it is in direct contradiction to the protectionist overtones of the Brexit vote.
May’s speech was welcomed by EU27 members, but did not sway EU officials from their strict stance regarding the start of talks. Belgian Member of European Parliament and the European Parliament’s chief Brexit negotiator Guy Verhofstadt said that “May’s clarity is welcome, but the days of UK cherry-picking and Europe à la carte are over.” Michel Barnier, the French chief Brexit negotiator for the European Commission, added in a tweet that he was “Ready as soon as UK is. Only notification can kick off negotiations”. In another tweet he reiterated the order of talks to come: “Agreement on orderly exit is prerequisite for future partnership. My priority is the right deal for EU27.” That intransigence must come as no surprise to May, as EU officials took a ‘hardline’ position from the get-go.
Most member-states adopted an unforgiving attitude toward the UK as soon as the results of the referendum were known last on June 24th. Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel unexpectedly did too, despite the fact that Germany’s strong economic ties to the UK lead many to assume it would be more amenable to the UK’s initial wishes to remain in the Single Market.France’s tough talk however, was wholly within expectations, as Paris fears the potential departure of other member-states, like Italy, the Netherlands, and France itself, in the event of a Front National victory in May. It was the first time since the advent of the subprime crisis that France and Germany concurred on an important dossier. Many of the issues that have kept Eurocrats busy these last few years saw Germany and France disagree: the refugee crisis, the Eurozone crisis, and defence spending and concerns about NATO and Russia. This united front extends to the EU27, and is welcome in a time of internal strife.
Moreover, May’s hard Brexit choice, alongside the statements she has made that are discussed above, likely strengthens that confrontational narrative. The illusion of being threatened by a common adversary is pushing the EU27 together, even though the UK is surely more at risk in Brexit negotiations. The UK’s chief Brexit negotiator’s resignation at the start of the year, and persisting disagreements between branches of government, show that UK officials are blindly feeling their way. Pressure is on the UK to reach a deal before the deadline, as it is clear that the EU27 will enter the talks with the upper hand.
However, there are fears that Brexit could distract the EU from more pressing matters. As previously highlighted, EU member-states are currently at odds on a number of issues: a coherent migration policy, the reform of the Eurozone, defence spending, and a response to Russia’s perceived aggression to the East. As a result, many fear that the EU cannot afford to further spread out its resources at such a critical time.
Still, it is possible that Brexit could provide a collective impetus among member states to address these numerous issues, particularly within the Eurozone, where there will be a greater incentive for collaboration. The Eurozone stands to be most impacted by Brexit in economic terms, since London is the financial center of Euro transactions. Further, as touched on earlier, the Franco-German relationship could benefit from the withdrawal of the UK. Their bilateral relationship is the historical “engine” of European integration, and has in recent times provided direction to the EU. Optimistic Europhiles are now hoping for an EU “revival”, spearheaded by a Franco-German team in sync once again.
This eventuality hinges on the results of elections that loom in both states. In France, presidential elections will take place in May, where far-right extremist Marine Le Pen has been consistently leading in polls since mid-2013. France’s two-round majoritarian voting system do not favour Le Pen, but unpredictability has become a mainstay in French politics, as highlighted by the outcome of the primaries of the right and of the left. In Germany, Angela Merkel is likely to come out on top of September’s federal elections. Nonetheless, she is a facing a serious contest from ex-president of the European Parliament Martin Schultz of the Social Democratic Party. In addition, were she to remain in power, her coalition would probably turn out more fragile: her current partner, the Christian Social Union in Bavaria, is expressing discontent with some of her policies while far-right party Alternative für Deutschland has capitalised on many Germans’ adverse reactions to the relatively recent influx of refugees.
In the midst of this political instability, Brexit represents a potential opportunity for the EU to strengthen existing ties between its member-states. Back in 1973, the UK entered the EU out of convenience and since then has never been fully committed to the founding vision of an “ever-closer union”. In fact, David Cameron successfully argue for the UK to ”opt-out” of that clause in a deal with the EU months before the Brexit vote. In spite of May’s ambiguous stance, Brexit provides a welcome clarification: whereas we never knew before whether the UK were fully within the EU or not, now they are out for good. The political opportunity that Brexit provides will now have to be seized by member-states, for European integration cannot stall if it wishes to survive.