Henry Newman is Director of Open Europe.
Last week marked the half-way point in the tight timetable of the Article 50 period. With little more than six months of actual negotiating time remaining, there’s a huge amount still to be agreed between the EU27 and the UK. But in his interview with Andrew Neil, David Davis was bullish, boasting of the good progress which has been made so far. It’s fair to say that the Government has been having a good run of things recently – getting agreement for the transition deal and securing widespread international support for its action against Russia in the wake of the Skripal affair.
Meanwhile, it’s remarkable to look back over the last year at changes across Europe. France is basking in the glory of a new ‘sun king’, conveniently forgetting that Macron was within five per cent of being defeated in the first round of the presidential system by two anti-Euro candidates. Germany has recently emerged from a half-year-long coalition negotiation to see Angel Merkel back as (a diminished) chancellor with the Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD) as the official opposition. The Italian elections saw Matteo Renzi’s Democratic Party (the PD) winning less than 19 per cent of the vote, and an outright majority held by the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and the former separatists turned nationalists, the League. The far right is now in government in Austria, and the ANO party won the Czech elections. In Spain, the Catalan constitutional crisis reminds us of David Cameron’s better handling of a referendum (on Scotland at least), and Poland and Hungary are in pretty open conflict with EU institutions. We’ve also seen President Juncker publicly dismiss the European Parliament as “ridiculous”, and the Parliament return the favour by criticising the way Juncker’s former Chief of Staff, Martin Selmayr, seized control of the Commission’s official apparatus.
Despite (and in some senses perhaps because) of these challenges, the EU has largely (but not completely) held together around Michel Barnier’s negotiating position in the Brexit discussions. There’s been relatively little open challenging of the Commission-led process. But there’s certainly plenty of concern expressed in private, when I speak to EU diplomats, about the danger of Brussels pursuing an overly-rigid approach that forces the UK away, and fails to recognise the many flexibilities of the EU’s existing agreements. A challenge in this direction came from a surprising direction: the European Parliament’s Brexit lead, Guy Verhofstadt. He recently called for an association agreement between the UK and the EU. At one level this is just semantics (one person’s association agreement may be another’s deep and special partnership) but it’s important that various creative ideas for bespoke close relationships are being aired on the EU side.
Ironically, the reaction to the Skripal poisoning has demonstrated some of the ways in which the UK and EU will be able to work closely after Brexit. When news of the poisoning first broke there were many predictions that – with the Prime Minister pursuing Brexit and the Foreign Secretary closely identified across Europe with the Leave campaign – the EU’s response would be muted. A leader in the New Statesman suggested that Britain would feel the “chill of isolation”. Despite the unilateral promise of a security and defence guarantee made by Theresa May in her Florence Speech, some didn’t seem to expect the EU to feel bound by the same commitment.
Those predictions of Britain’s isolation in the face of a horrific breach of basic international norms were certainly depressing. Reading some critics a few weeks back, it seemed as if it was almost only by virtue of our membership of the EU that historic allies would ever be moved to take collective action if we were threatened even with an unprovoked hostile use of chemical weapons. Others seemed to expect us to be overlooked (despite still being a full member) because of our decision to head for the exit.
Yet the (almost) unified response from the EU side, with mass expulsions of Russian diplomats from multiple member states, confounded those expectations. Some have sought to argue that the joint action demonstrates the utility of EU membership, of sitting round the table in the European Council and the Foreign Affairs Council to discuss crucial issues. Of course there’s truth in this (and indeed if the European Council was the prime motor of European action, it’s highly unlikely Euroscepticism would have got very far in the UK).
Ironically, particularly for President Putin who presumably wanted to test European solidarity post-Brexit and trans-Atlantic solidarity under Trump, the Skripal affair practically united the West. This is especially significant as in the minds of many power-brokers on the Continent, Britain is already treated as if we are out of the club. The response showed the ability of the EU and the Anglosphere to agree a common approach under British leadership. Of course, things shouldn’t be over-stated: European unity on this question is fragile (as indeed is Trump’s resolve). Germany backed the UK over the expulsions but is pressing ahead with the controversial Nordstream2 pipeline nonetheless. And I’ve heard directly from senior London-based EU diplomats of scepticism over the attribution of the attacks to Russia.
Over the coming few months we are sure to see bumps in the Brexit process, and tensions in the negotiations. No one should doubt the challenges still to be resolved for Brexit to work. But in many ways Davis was right to describe the negotiations as “strategically simple” but “tactically and technically complex”. There’s an assumption growing that Brexit is somehow so difficult, so demanding, that it simply cannot be resolved – the Irish border problem is often given as an example of this. But this ‘doctrine of impossibility’ is mistaken. The challenges and complexity are certainly there, but they are resolvable through political agreement. And the single most important fact to consider is that both sides want to reach agreement.