DEVELOPMENTS in the European Union are under the spotlight again as the formal negotiations have now started about the terms of Britain’s departure from the bloc. These come just a year after the nation’s referendum on its future EU relationship and the surprise decision, by a narrow margin, to leave.
Sustained opposition by the so-called Remainers in the period following the referendum delayed the government’s invoking of article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty — the procedure for ending EU membership – but the Brexit negotiations are now expected to take up to two years.
Without providing a blow-by-blow account of the negotiating process, Prime Minister Theresa May has already announced proposals about reciprocal residency rights for some three million EU citizens already living in the United Kingdom (EU), and for one million Britons residing in EU countries. Although relatively straightforward, these have attracted controversy which is perhaps an indication of the likely difficulty of obtaining agreement on more complex issues like withdrawal from the single market.
Mrs May’s negotiating hand with the EU has surely been weakened by her failure to secure an overall majority in this month’s UK general election, but it remains to be seen what domestic parliamentary support she is able to attract, apart from the Democratic Unionist Party representing Northern Ireland, as the EU discussions develop, moreover, it is now clear that any deal will require parliamentary approval.
While the British people will continue to be divided over the terms of Brexit, it is clear that the government itself is determined to fulfill the referendum decision by withdrawing from the EU treaties and bureaucracies that no longer work for Britain. But at the same time it is insistent on maintaining a deep and special partnership with the remaining 27 EU member states. So while leaving the single market and customs union and reaching a separate trade agreement as well as the European Court of Justice – thus allowing the nation to control its borders and restore its parliamentary sovereignty enabling it to make its own laws justiciable in its own courts – this means cooperating fully on other major issues; from example, security and crime, the environment, education and scientific research together with cultural, technological, medical and sporting exchanges.
With the EU at a cross roads in the wake of Britain’s withdrawal, it is interesting to look from afar at the broader picture.
After the horrors of the second world war, the EU’s founding principle was that nationalism should be suppressed by means of full European integration leading to creation of a federal superstate. The ambitions of the founding fathers have been met insofar as conflict between France and Germany, the traditional antagonists, has been avoided. But the insistence by current eurocrats on transforming the bloc, from a free trade area into a full economic and political union has served, ironically, to create tensions and divisions within the EU and precipitate a resurgence of the nationalism it was designed to prevent.
It now seems that Euroscepticism has grown to the extent that there is increasing resistance to ever-closer union on the part of nation states. With their varied history, culture, traditions, customs and languages, some EU members now seem reluctant to be subsumed into a federal superstate.
Nonetheless, two important steps towards this aim has been achieved — the Euro single currency and the removal of EU internal borders through the Schengen Agreement. The Eurozone has been partially successful, but is seen by some as a flawed concept because of the huge disparities between its members’ economies — Germany and France, for example, compared to Greece, with its residual debt problem, Portugal and even Spain and Italy — which cannot operate effectively with the same interest and exchange rates. As for a borderless EU, the ongoing refugee crisis has resulted in alienation, xenophobia and distrust among EU member states which have been taking unilateral action to protect what they regard as their territorial integrity.
According to reports, the German Chancellor has stated explicitly that the EU should gradually turn economic and fiscal cooperation into political union. As far as Britain is concerned, it seems that, since it declined to join the Eurozone or participate in the Schengen arrangements, it would not have accepted any further steps towards such union leading to a federal state in the longer term. So, given the prevailing public mood, perhaps the victory for the Leavers, slim as it was, should never really have been in doubt.
In an increasingly inter-connected world, the future cohesion and prosperity of the EU, with its combined population of some 450 million, is of major concern. A Britain no longer constrained by what some see as the shackles of the EU is likely to be more outward-looking and will be free to reach trade agreements with the rest of the world. This could mean greater focus on the Commonwealth, including former colonial territories in the Caribbean, which is likely to benefit countries like our own.
Since European stability is important for global peace, it is encouraging that Britain has pledged full cooperation, post-Brexit, with its former EU partners. Thus, the rest of the world might reasonably hope that, even though the Brexit talks will be extensive and tough, the UK and the European Commission representing the other member states will not be permanently at loggerheads over the coming two years of negotiations. We can only trust that ultimately there will be a smooth divorce.