Stephen Booth is Acting Director at Open Europe.
It appears that UK-EU negotiations are being conducted behind the scenes, but we’re unlikely to know if this will produce anything substantial until after the Conservative Party conference, in the immediate run up to the 17th-18th October European Council.
Meanwhile, the EU has time to reflect upon the increasingly maddening Westminster debate over Brexit we’ve all witnessed in recent weeks. It has long been assumed, and for a long time probably correctly, that majority opinion among the EU27 was happy for the Brexit process to be strung along in the hope that the UK might eventually reconsider and remain. But there are signs this view is shifting and some important member states are reassessing what their preferred outcome of this process actually is. The more bitter the UK’s domestic debate becomes, the less upside there is for the EU if the UK were to end up remaining.
In particular, Emmanuel Macron is losing patience with what he views as a distraction from the EU’s various other pressing problems. Although it is unlikely that France would veto an Article 50 extension if a UK government were to request it, Macron is also wary of being seen to be too closely in cahoots with the “Remain Alliance”. It is thought his preferred outcome is that the UK leaves with a deal, and France’s public reservations about an extension are partly an attempt to put pressure on Parliament to back any deal that can be struck in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, Xavier Bettel’s solo press conference, or rant, in Luxembourg yesterday revealed a growing despair that the UK could not conclude the current deal, but it was hardly designed to welcome the UK back to the EU top table either.
When EU figures look at what anti-No Deal and anti-Brexit forces in Parliament are suggesting you can understand why the EU is increasingly uneasy about the letting the process continue to drag on. Following their conference in Bournemouth, the Liberal Democrats now say that if they came to power they would revoke Article 50, without a referendum. The Labour Party’s policy – subject to further changes at its conference next week – is that there should be another referendum between remain and a “credible” leave option. The Labour leadership is yet to make up its mind which option it would campaign for, if any.
It is often argued that a No Deal Brexit does not constitute a “clean break” with the EU because the future UK-EU relationship would still be unresolved. This may be so, but the same is also true of every other outcome. And there are many in the EU that can see this. The question they must ask themselves is what outcome might provide the most stable relationship in the years to come?
The Liberal Democrats’ policy plays to the party base but it is deeply reckless. It would only further poison the well of British politics and compound the already rising distrust in the political class. It is also curious that a party so devoted to electoral reform, and critical of the first past the post system, would consider an election victory on less than 50 per cent of the vote to be a mandate to overturn the 2016 majority vote. The EU27 must see this would be a completely rotten foundation for the UK remaining in the EU.
The Labour policy is also patently absurd when viewed from Brussels. If Jeremy Corbyn was Prime Minister he would demand that the EU negotiate a “credible” Brexit deal that the vast majority of his party would campaign against. This is not a negotiation any in the EU would sensibly welcome and is simply a recipe for more uncertainty for many more months.
In either scenario, if it resulted in the UK remaining, the EU would be correct to wonder whether there can ever now be a stable majority for EU membership in the UK. It is not difficult to imagine the domestic reaction at the first high-profile UK government defeat in Brussels. It would be a running sore that would make the regular bust-ups of the past look trivial. The UK is too big to come to heel.
Equally, EU leaders would be wise to probe the rather important distinction between being “anti-Brexit” and “pro-EU”, for they are not the same thing. There is far more of the former impulse than the latter in the UK debate, which might reflect the fact that for many hardened Remainers the concern appears to be less about the UK’s relationship with Europe than bitterness about losing a seismic popular vote. I write as someone who voted Remain in 2016 and cannot understand why so many in Parliament who said they would respect the vote would rather risk No Deal than vote for a deal.
Seemingly completely unnoticed and unremarked upon in our parliamentary debate is that the EU mindset has already moved on following the UK’s vote to leave. Some MPs have made the argument that the UK should “remain and reform”, but what are the prospects of this in the real world? Ursula von der Leyen, the incoming European Commission President, is a believer in a “united states of Europe”. The former German defence minister has also called for unanimity to be replaced with qualified majority voting on foreign policy decisions. This is whom EU leaders have chosen to lead their most powerful institution. Who in the UK is actually advocating either of these things?
Faced with the internal political crisis Brexit has become, the conclusion many in the EU might soon draw is that there is now too much water under the bridge and that the UK should leave one way or another.