Brexit: avoiding a lengthy divorce


Picture of Franziska Brantner
Franziska Brantner

German Parliamentary State Secretary for Economic Affairs and Climate Action, Trustee of Friends of Europe and 2012 European Young Leader (EYL40)

The Brexit supporters have proclaimed 23rd June as their ‘Independence Day’. This day, on which the European Union presumably lost one of its most important members, leads us to several conclusions. Decades of bashing and spreading lies about the EU cannot be cancelled out in a few months. Those who play with fire, as Prime Minister David Cameron did, should expect a house alight. The referendum is a lesson to all democrats in the remaining EU member states: blind attacks on the EU and inciting fear to gain a percentage point or two in the polls and a seat in a talk show must now be a thing of the past. But let’s not leave the floor to those who oversimplify, or to the extremists and racists. This common Europe and our open, liberal democracy are far too valuable.

‘Leave’ has won. Now we must avoid lengthy divorce proceedings that unnecessarily sap energy from the EU. The Commission and the Council have been inactive for far too long, and all to avoid making any ‘mistake’ that could have interfered with Cameron’s referendum. His successor should swiftly initiate the proceedings set out in Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty, which outlines the steps for leaving the EU – a process that will take at least two years. The announced months-long wait for a new Prime Minister to set this procedure in motion cannot reasonably be expected of the EU’s remaining members. Furthermore, stalling is unacceptable and we must stick to our convictions.  We need to keep in mind that Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson’s backers in Paris, The Hague or elsewhere will be following the news of the EU’s dealings with its want-away members closely. We must avoid giving the impression that leaving the EU will be rewarded.

We are entering a withdrawal process, not a negotiation

But we should also treat London fairly. We will still need each other in the future, and the chance – albeit slim – of a revision of the vote still exists. To state it clearly, though, we are entering a withdrawal process, not a negotiation. There is nothing to negotiate. In negotiations, there are two sides, each wanting something from the other.  Here, this is not the case; the Brexit supporters affirmed time and again that they would not institute tariffs or trade barriers. We should take them at their word.

A status similar to that of Switzerland or Norway has been mentioned as a possibility for the UK-EU relationship. This implies making financial contributions to the EU as well as adopting some of its laws and regulations. It is essential that London does not receive special treatment. Leaving the EU but retaining free access to the continent’s markets, as some would surely hope, is wishful thinking. Surely, the EU will not make concessions on market access for goods, services and capital if those in power in London stick to their slogans against the freedom of movement for workers, which poisoned the Brexit campaign.

The EU and its proponents should not panic. Neither should we abandon our dreams, nor turn to self-righteousness and carry on unquestioningly. Regardless of the absurd absence of facts from the Brexit campaign and its incendiary methods, let’s face it: the Brits were not the first to oppose Europe in a referendum – though the outcome is certainly the most dramatic from such a vote. ‘Brussels’, and the images people associate with it, is opposed in many quarters. The EU is in a dire situation, and criticism should not be taboo. Yes, there is need for action. We urgently need answers to both the youth unemployment in southern Europe and to the Viktor Orbáns of the continent. For example, the Council of Ministers must be more transparent. We need full clarity on what our leaders decide behind closed doors, not only on what they tell their country’s press afterwards. Equally, we must institute parliamentary oversight of the troika.

The EU will not make concessions if those in London stick to their slogans against the freedom of movement which poisoned the Brexit campaign

So we should take up this debate constructively and in a goal-focused manner. We are no longer the small club of states that advocated for rapid and extensive integration. How do we proceed with multi-speed Europe? Should it not be possible for the ambitious states willing to proceed at a faster pace, those that want ‘more Europe’, to do so? In my opinion, this question has already been resolved for the members of the eurozone. We need changes such as a common economic government – despite the fact that this term is still blacklisted in Germany. A common euro budget, which could be a part of the regular EU budget, is equally important.

Plenty of reasonable points of criticism concerning the EU are no less legitimate just because they were a part of David Cameron’s laundry list of grievances. Some things regulated by Brussels do not need to be. Nevertheless, we can only tackle many of the challenges we face together. The UK is set to discover this reality in the near future, and I hope this realisation will not be too painful. I also hope that the young Brits, who predominantly voted against Brexit, maintain a favourable outlook on Europe. We must keep all Erasmus programmes open to their participation, and maintain their enthusiasm for a united Europe.

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