By Peter Young
DURING our lengthy visit to England recently, my wife and I were struck by the extensive coverage in the media of developments related to the European Union.
This emphasis doubtless reflected the return to Westminster of Members of Parliament after the summer break and their debate of an important piece of legislation in the shape of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill to enable the transfer of thousands of EU laws on to the UK’s statute book for review by the government. But it also showed the intrinsic significance of the resumption of the Brexit negotiations while the departure from the EU of an important member state like Britain and the likely worldwide ramifications will always be newsworthy.
Add to this mix an uncompromising State of the Union address in September by the European Commission president and it was surely inevitable that the EU should be dominating both the airwaves and the print media once again.
The debate in Britain about its EU membership rumbles on despite the electorate’s decision in last year’s referendum to leave the bloc. At 52 per cent to 48 per cent, the vote was relatively close and this issue continues to be divisive. Most people seem to agree that in a democracy it is healthy to allow a reasoned debate to be played out to the fullest extent possible. But many have been demanding that –some 15 months after the referendum –- the will of the people must be carried out.
So, after gaining parliamentary approval, the government triggered earlier this year the process of withdrawal by invoking Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty, and the UK will leave the EU by the end of March, 2019. At the same time, the Brexit negotiations to decide the terms of withdrawal began in Brussels.
Most recently, in order to kick start these negotiations which seemed to have stalled, Prime Minister Theresa May has proposed a post-withdrawal transition or implementation period of around two years which the European Commission has welcomed.
A fourth round of so-called divorce talks has just ended with both sides expressing optimism about an eventual successful outcome, though a substantial number of important issues including the rights of EU citizens living and working in the UK and the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic remain to be resolved.
The UK has adopted a flexible and rational approach to the talks. It accepts that it should honour its financial and other commitments deriving from its EU membership but wants to place payments in the context of a future free-trade deal. Its chief negotiator is being urged to talk up Britain’s strengths, not least the sound state of its economy despite the dire warnings of the so-called Project Fear about the likely damaging effects of Brexit – and at the Conservative Party’s annual conference there has been talk of MPs insisting the EU must agree to start trade talks before Christmas or Britain would walk away from the Brussels negotiations.
Even though the process of withdrawal is now moving forward with renewed momentum, some ‘Remainers’ are still pressing for the referendum decision to be revisited on the grounds those voting to leave did not fully understand the issue and its widespread repercussions.
However, the case for staying was dealt a blow by Jean-Claude Juncker in his State of the Union address which laid out a blueprint for the EU’s future of ever closer political integration and more power to be transferred to Brussels from the nation states.
He unveiled a bold vision for deeper cooperation between member states leading to the establishment of a federal EU state with a single president and complete economic integration so that the euro would become the currency of the entire EU with Brussels controlling the financial affairs of all. The Schengen agreement on removal of borders would also be extended and a European Defence Union established by 2025.
Mr. Juncker’s vision should have come as no surprise, since it was also the dream of the founding fathers of a united Europe who realised that full political and economic union could only be achieved bit by bit without declaring that a United States of Europe was their ultimate goal. They nevertheless revealed their aim by including reference to political unification in the Treaty of Rome of 1957 establishing the European Economic Community – also known as the Common Market which Britain formally joined in 1973. Many who voted in the referendum to remain or were undecided will surely now regard Mr. Juncker’s latest intervention as a compelling reason to leave the EU. They will finally see that, having already declined to join the euro and refused to participate in the Schengen agreement, this is the time for a clean break while the EU takes a leap forward towards its goal of full integration and creation of an EU “super state”.
The lesson from the UK’s referendum must surely be that, even if there might be an economic disadvantage – though a successful Brexit resulting in new trade deals with the rest of the world could turn out eventually to be a boost to the economy – a majority of its people are not prepared to sacrifice the nation’s sovereignty through membership of a federal Europe, and they want their country to take back control of its borders, make its own laws without being dictated to by Brussels and re-establish the supremacy of its own courts.
It is clear nonetheless that leaving the EU’s principal institutions must mean that Britain should not turn its back on Europe. Mrs May has said that she wants a new partnership with the remaining 27 EU states to include cooperation and collaboration across-the-board; not least on issues such as defence, intelligence sharing, security, crime, counterterrorism, nuclear research and scientific development, as well as transport and communications, the economy and commerce with negotiation of a new bilateral trade agreement with the European Commission.
At the same time, freed from the constraints of EU membership, Britain will seek to flourish as a sovereign, dynamic, free-trading country on the global stage less dependent on European markets and no longer fettered by excessive and intrusive EU regulations.
A major hurdle for the government is the internal divisions of the Conservative Party. As a reflection of continuing differences over Europe which have bedevilled the Tories for years, Mrs May’s Cabinet is reportedly split on Brexit with, for example, the Foreign Secretary openly putting forward his own vision of a post-Brexit Britain and demanding the UK’s departure within the agreed timeframe should be final, with no application of EU regulations during a transition period. Mrs May’s position as prime minister was inevitably weakened when she failed to win an overall majority at last June’s General Election and her political future now depends on achieving a successful Brexit.
Meanwhile, another event to muddy the EU waters has been the outcome of Germany’s recent federal elections. Angela Merkel won a fourth consecutive term as Chancellor, but the rise of the nationalistic, eurosceptic, far-right AfD (Alternative for Germany), which won ninety-four seats in parliament, was part of the reason for the relatively poor showing of her Christian Democratic Union with about thirty per cent of the vote, and she now has to build a new coalition. She has paid a political price for ignoring the widespread concern about her open immigration policies. It remains to be seen whether her weakened position will result in a changed German approach to the Brexit talks in the short term or even towards the whole EU project.
The EU is split on how to handle the crisis of hordes of refugees and economic migrants seeking a safe haven in Europe, with millions of its citizens worried that mass immigration will affect jobs and services. There is also now a surge of nationalism in countries like Poland and Hungary which runs counter to greater EU integration.
Despite much controversy Britain is on stream to quit the EU in 2019. The great unknown is what the eventual terms will be. But, barring a seismic political shift in the UK or unexpected developments in Europe, this departure will surely happen and the nation will begin to play a different and more outward-looking role at the international level.
With a fast moving situation and so many imponderables, few commentators are willing to make further predictions. But what is for sure is that in the foreseeable future developments in Europe will continue to make the headlines.
- Peter Young is a retired British career diplomat living in Nassau. From 1996 to 2000 he was British High Commissioner to The Bahamas.