The EU must soften on Brexit to safeguard wider European goals

Frankly Speaking

Picture of Giles Merritt
Giles Merritt

Founder of Friends of Europe

Giles Merritt urges this week’s European Council to ignore the UK’s hardline provocations with a more flexible approach that can avoid a ‘No-Deal’ Brexit.

A paradox surrounds the Brexit endgame. When EU leaders assemble for this week’s make-or-break summit to decide if a deal is still possible, they will be more anxious than the Brexiteers to save the UK from itself.

Prime minister Boris Johnson’s populist tactics have contrasted with the stolid rationality of EU negotiator Michel Barnier. Only last month, Johnson declared that a no-deal Brexit would be “a good outcome”, whereas across the English Channel the consensus is that the whole of Europe would suffer.

Foreign correspondents often paint a clearer political picture than local media. This is certainly true of the Brexit story. The reporting of Britain’s print and broadcast media – including the BBC – has either been biased against the EU, or has failed to delve into the costs of “taking back control”.

In sharp contrast, international media coverage has mirrored worldwide bafflement at the erratic behaviour of formerly pragmatic Britain – not least the flouting of the withdrawal agreement it signed less than a year ago. London’s combination of aggression with a startling ignorance of EU rules and mechanisms has provoked mounting resentment and anger.

Brussels is not alone in fearing that the UK will be a loose cannon in an increasingly volatile world

Despite this, the mood in Brussels is of restraint; European politicians and diplomats don’t want to make matters worse by envenoming an already fraught relationship. They know the EU must find a constructive new modus vivendi with the UK. Johnson and his Brexiteer government colleagues have yet to grasp this, refusing to include foreign and security policy cooperation in the Brexit negotiations.

The UK’s permanent seat on the UN Security Council together with its pre-eminent military strengths within Europe could have made this a powerful card to play. But the Brexiteers are understood to have rejected this opportunity because it might smack of collaboration with the EU rather than confrontation.                 

Battered by growing criticism of its handling of Covid-19, the Johnson government has been resorting to anti-EU positions bordering on the xenophobic. Despite the ‘Global Britain’ slogan, it has no definable foreign policy stance of its own. It broadly shares EU positions on climate change, Iran and Russia, but seems uncertain and unfocussed on many sensitive issues, including future relations with China and the US.

Brussels is not alone in fearing that the UK will be a loose cannon in an increasingly volatile world. An analysis by Britain’s most prominent think tank, Chatham House, was headlined: “Picking up the broken pieces of UK foreign policy.”

The corona crisis is far from over, but already it has strengthened the European Union

Uppermost in EU leaders’ minds at the October 15-16 European Council should be the reality that only comparatively minor trade and competition policy issues bar the way to a deal, and thus to a more positive wider relationship once the dust settles. Stepping back from all the rhetoric, they will see that Brexit’s earlier threats to the EU’s integrity and its single market have proved groundless. The UK is the outlier, not a rallying flag for discontent.

The corona crisis is far from over, but already it has strengthened the European Union through the mutualised recovery fund and a renewed sense of solidarity. The scene is set for a gesture of generosity. It won’t be easy to make concessions to Brexiteer adversaries who will crow delightedly over their ‘victories’, but whether these are over fishing limits or ways to resolve state aid squabbles it behoves the EU to show maximum flexibility.

The minutiae of EU-UK trade and investment arrangements are not the real issue. Far more important will be the geo-political relationship between a major European nation and the rest of continental Europe. In the years ahead, Britain has to be coaxed back into the fold of shared research projects, free movement of people and capital, and a collective approach to global challenges. Avoiding a No-Deal Brexit is key to this.

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