Iain Duncan Smith is a former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, founded the Centre for Social Justice, and is MP for Chingford and Woodford Green.
Last night, the Commons voted by a substantial majority to defeat the Lords amendments and pass the four line Bill triggering Article 50 unamended. Later, the Lords accepted the Commons’ decision, which now paves the way for the UK to trigger Article 50 before the end of March.
Listening to the debate, both in the Lords and the Commons, I was struck by how insular many of the speeches were, and how little they seemed to recognise what is happening amongst the member states of the European Union. Time and again, speakers referred to the posturing of the Commission as though that was the settled view of the whole of the EU. They spoke as though only the UK would suffer if there was no post-Brexit trading arrangement, and that whatever the adverse economic effects to individual countries they would all follow the Commission’s expressed ‘tough line.’ Yet this is far from the case. Almost daily, we can see a number of variations presented as to what the EU’s position should be, as concerns rise that the Commission’s political line is unsustainable.
Of the major nations, Germany has begun that shift first. Wolfgang Schäuble, Germany’s finance minister, entered the Commission’s territory by saying that a good deal with the UK was vital; he even said the EU should offer Britain a “reasonable” Brexit deal because financial services offered by the City of London benefit the whole European economy. It was, he maintained, preferable to keep Britain close to the EU.
We have also had a close ally of the German Chancellor, Hans-Olaf Henkel, make the point that firms in Germany require a satisfactory resolution in Brexit negotiations to protect their own markets. German industry, he maintained, needed the British consumer and it should seek access to the UK market and fight for unlimited access of British companies to the European market in return. The former IBM Europe president and head of Germany’s chamber of commerce went on to predict that Angela Merkel would push for a compromise. Merkel has made the same point in private meetings as well.
They are not alone. Business leaders in other countries are concerned that the Commission seems to be wilfully ignoring the issue of employment in the EU that rests on the profitable exports to the UK. Many are privately indicating that the issue of the future economic relationship of the EU and the UK is too important to be left to officials in Brussels who have ‘limited skin in the game’.
This internal disagreement should also be set against the growing crisis in the EU over the rise of the populist parties in a number of countries, whose support has grown on the back of the failing Euro’s depression of the EU economies, unemployment and large scale migration which has left few countries unaffected.
Then there’s the continuing debt crisis in Greece, with more calls for further bailouts, and the Italian banking crisis. This banking crisis was one of the reasons why a referendum in Italy on constitutional changes turned into a referendum on their membership of the Euro. Shockwaves rolled through the halls of the EU as the result in the usually pro-EU Italy went vastly against Brussels.
Just in the last few days we have seen rioting amongst resident Turks in Holland over their right to hold campaign rallies to support President Erdogan’s drive for more powers in Turkey. With some 400,000 Turks resident in Holland, tensions have boiled over as the Dutch government refused entry to a Turkish minister, escorting her to the border. It is not only Holland that has been affected by Erdogan’s plans, but Germany and Austria have been as well. Yet Holland is due to go the polls in a matter of days, and these scenes are feeding the concerns over Islam’s place in the nation and benefiting the anti-Muslim Geert Wilders of the Freedom Party.
In response, Turkey denounced the Netherlands as “Nazi remnants” and a “banana republic” for its restrictions. Erdogan also riled Germany earlier by making a similar comparison with the Nazis. This is astonishing from one NATO member to another, and even more so when one reflects on how reliant the EU – and Germany in particular – is on Turkish cooperation in holding the refugees in Turkey, after the huge influx of refugees into Europe a year ago. Having banished the Dutch ambassador, the fear is that Turkey could let the refugees cross over to Greece all over again, just in time to coincide with the French and German elections. After all, in Germany alone, there are an estimated 1.4 million eligible Turkish voters, making it the fourth largest voting bloc after Turkey’s three biggest cities. There are also large Turkish populations in Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland.
France is heading for the polls very soon, too, and similar tensions over the rise of Marine Le Pen are dominating their election too.
The EU is far being from a homogeneous place, calmly waiting for the Commission to lead negotiations with the UK. With so many member states facing such internal and divisive issues at home, the Commission has had a fairly free hand up until now to make a series of aggressive statements which not all agree with. Many politicians and business leaders that I and others have spoken to are already making the point that at the end of the Brexit discussions they will need the UK to be engaged as a friend and ally. For with such internal problems, such as those as we have witnessed over the weekend, not to mention the ever present threat of terrorism, the issue isn’t just about trade but also about internal security and defence too. To that end, I note that the Council of Ministers has insisted that as representatives of the nation states it should play a full part in all the discussions with the UK.
As we now move forward to start the official process, Ministers would do well to recognise that these growing concerns amongst member states over the Commission’s position find common cause around the Brexit conference table.