Ashley Fox is an MEP for South West England, and is the leader of Britain’s Conservative MEPs.
It may be the start of a new year, but old, familiar issues face the European Union when it returns to work next week.
Two in particular are going to require decisions that will shape the future of the EU over the next decade and beyond. Both present a severe test of the bloc’s unity and its legendary ability to substitute inconclusive fudge for political consensus.
The first, of course, is Brexit. We are reaching the business end of negotiations when Member States’ economic self-interest begins to run up against the Commission’s much-trumpeted united front. Britain is clear what it wants from the forthcoming talks – an implementation period during which the status quo is largely preserved followed by a comprehensive trade deal which, as David Davis spelled out last week, maintains as much as possible of the current economic co-operation with minimal new barriers. It should include goods, agriculture and services, including financial services.
The EU’s problem is this makes just as much sense for the EU27 as it does for the UK. Understandably it must protect the integrity of the Single Market but in doing so it has to avoid any temptation to erect artificial barriers simply to make an example of Britain as a departing member. It needs to swallow hard and, for once, put people above politics.
This is possible if, for the purpose of the trade talks, Brussels treats the UK as if it were already a third country and imagines that one of the world’s largest economies has come seeking the most wide-ranging, mutually beneficial trade agreement ever negotiated. That is the reality and would enable EU negotiators to enter the discussions seeking solutions not obstructions.
Many European politicians I speak to support such an approach, and last month Paolo Gentiloni, the Italian Prime Minister, voiced publicly what other member states are saying behind closed doors when he called for “a tailor-made model for the relationship between the UK and the EU.” I am hopeful this view will prevail.
For the second issue we need to look east, where Poland and Hungary are asking awkward, fundamental questions about the EU’s role.
Just before the holidays the European Commission took the unprecedented step of launching Article 7 “rule of law” procedures against Poland following Warsaw’s failure to address concerns about judicial reforms which, it is claimed, compromise the independence of the country’s courts. This could theoretically lead to a suspension of Poland’s voting rights, although in reality Hungary would almost certainly use its veto to block any sanction.
Meanwhile, Hungary has been taken to court by Brussels over its laws concerning NGOs and higher education, while both countries, along with the Czech Republic, face legal action over their refusal to admit asylum seekers.
Leaving aside the individual issues, at stake is the wider question of national sovereignty and how far an integrationist EU should go in imposing its views on Member States. Poland and Hungary are, quite rightly, determined to have their voices heard in Brussels with Mateusz Marawiecki, the new Polish Prime Minister, announcing they want to “influence Europe’s future in a very positive way.”
His Hungarian counterpart, Victor Orban, is more forthright, predicting “a year of great battles” with the EU and announcing this week: “We don’t want to live in an empire but rather in an alliance of free nations.”
How many warnings does the EU’s detached elite need about imposing its views and values on countries with varying cultures, histories and attitudes? Has nothing been learned from Brexit?
The Commission should think twice, then think again, before attempting to intervene in the domestic affairs of Member States and run the risk of inflaming, rather than resolving, differences. A failure to do so will leave other countries wondering whether they might be the Commission’s next target.
In the case of Poland, President Juncker ought to take the opportunity to build relationships with the new Prime Minister, not provoke confrontation. The rising popularity of Marawiecki’s government shows that the Polish people do not appreciate Brussels’ interference.
So, another interesting year ahead in Brussels. And I have not even touched upon how the EU is going to plug the budget deficit left by Britain’s departure.