THE resumption of Parliament at Westminster following the long summer break, together with another round of Brexit negotiations in Brussels, has ensured that the issue of Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union is once again at the forefront of the nation’s political and economic agenda.
Two other factors – the recent State of the Union address by European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker calling for even greater EU integration and the surprise outcome of last weekend’s federal elections in Germany – have also now put the future of Europe back once more onto the centre stage of world politics.
Having secured parliamentary approval, the United Kingdom government invoked last March Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty which provides the mechanism for an EU member state to leave the bloc within a two-year period.
The withdrawal negotiations that began soon after in Brussels were said gradually to have stalled. But in an effort to break the stalemate Prime Minister Theresa May has now called for a two-year transition or implementation period immediately following Britain’s departure no later than the end of March, 2019, during which it should continue to have, in particular, access to the single market including free movement of people while the final negotiations covering the detailed terms of the UK’s withdrawal may also run on.
The EU has welcomed this as a constructive proposal and Mrs. May apparently hoped that it would kick start the so-called ‘divorce talks’.
The British approach appears to be to link any financial settlement to the establishment of a free-trade deal of benefit to all. So far, the signs have been that Brussels has continued to adopt a tough stance, not least as a deterrent to other member states thinking of quitting the bloc. However, the latest and fourth round of talks have just ended on a positive and optimistic note with both sides acknowledging that progress has been made though serious differences remain. The next few months will be critical as the negotiations gather momentum.
Mr. Juncker’s proposals for the EU to take a significant leap forward in pursuit of ever closer union with a view to becoming a federal state – more power transferred to Brussels from the nation states, a strengthened common currency for the entire bloc, extension of the Schengen agreement on removal of borders and a fully fledged European Defence Union – will surely only increase Britain’s determination to leave with as good a deal as it can obtain.
This blueprint for the future of the EU was predictable given that its reaction to any setback to its long term plans is simply more Europe. But the result of Germany’s elections represents a new and potentially threatening dimension.
Even though Angela Merkel won a fourth consecutive term as Chancellor, the rise of the AfD (Alternative for Germany), a nationalistic and eurosceptic right-wing party which won some 13 per cent of the vote and more than 90 seats in parliament, and the decline of her Christian Democratic Union with only about 30 per cent of the national vote and which will now have to build a new coalition, will herald a period of prolonged domestic uncertainty and could even include a changed approach to the EU.
It remains to be seen what effect this will have on the European Commission’s negotiating stance in the short term in relation to Brexit. Britain has made it clear that, liberated from the constraints of the EU it wants to be a free-trading, sovereign nation in charge of its borders again and making its own laws which should be justiciable in its own courts. It is prepared to meet its financial obligations and honour its commitments already entered into as an EU member, but in many ways it is bargaining from a position of strength. So, with two heavyweights fighting it out, the Brexit negotiations already under way to forge a new relationship across-the-board between the UK and EU countries, which involve an unravelling of the complexities and technicalities of the EU’s institutions, will continue to be an enormous challenge to both sides during the coming months and beyond.
The conjunction of Brexit and the emergence of the far-right in Germany, the richest and most influential nation in Europe – together with a surge of nationalism in countries like Poland and Hungary which runs counter to Mr Juncker’s bold vision for greater EU integration – looks to the outsider to constitute perhaps the greatest challenge and threat to the bloc during the course of its nearly sixty years of existence.
There will surely be a period of extreme uncertainty across Europe and only the foolhardy would dare to predict how events may unfold.