Is the EU shooting itself in the foot with Brexit negotiations?

Olivia Rohll

Just over five months on from the UK’s vote to leave the European Union on the 23rd of June 2016, there seems to have been almost no progress on what a post-EU Britain will look like. This is partly because of domestic disagreement - the Economist recently reported an almost perfect 50:50 split of opinion over the key free trade/free movement trade-off in the Brexit negotiations - but also because of the reactions of EU leaders nervous of right wing populism in their own backyards. The situation appears at times to have reached a total stalemate which only the goodwill of the negotiators can dissipate. Unfortunately for Theresa May the inner insecurity about the EU aroused across the bloc by Brexit has made goodwill hard to come by because an easy exit for the UK would encourage others to follow suit. 


However the resistance by French President François Hollande and, more recently Germanfinance minister Wolfgang Schäuble is unlikely to achieve the neutralisation of anti-EU sentiment they seek. Even among ‘Remain’ voters in the UK, the hostility sensed behind statements that the UK could face EU budget commitments up to 2030 and the like, have stirred up the feeling that Brussels has ambitions that override the sovereignty of EU member states. Britain has become a hazard to ‘The Project’ and is being punished for it - not a sight that is likely to appease nationalists. What is more, seeing leaders scrabbling to maintain their positions at the expense of their allies will do nothing to dispel feeling that the world is being run by a small group of elites uninterested in the concerns of the ‘everyday man’. Elitism even seems to be being felt at the state level, with Italy threatening to veto the EU budget due to what they see as a lack of support from EU countries with handling asylum seekers and immigrants. This is no doubt partly a political move by prime-minister Matteo Renzi, who is currently facing a referendum which, like the Brexit vote, is becoming as much about anti-establishment feeling as the constitutional reform it proposes. However the almost childish move to veto the budget also reflects the power imbalance between members which EU leaders like Renzi are finally pushing back against. The upshot is that whatever strategy European governments employ to handle Brexit they are eventually going to have to face internal unease about the EU face on, both at a domestic and national level. An easy Brexit may well encourage further departures, but throwing up barriers simply demonstrates the qualities of the European Union its people are coming to resent. 


The possibility of closer ties between the UK and US since the election of Donald Trump will do nothing to lower the tension. A British-American trade deal, although far from certain, would substantially strengthen the UK in the face of a weakened post-Brexit economy. Trump’s protectionism could well lead to complete abandonment of the work done towards a US-EU free trade deal, and his open enthusiasm for Brexit only adds insult to injury. While the scrapping of what has now been several years of complex negotiations would be an understandable blow for Brussels, failure must not be pinned on Trump or Brexit. At the end of August 2016 European politicians such as French Trade Minister Matthias Fekl began calling for the end of EU-US negotiations because of unmeetable demands from the Americans. In light of the possibility that the proposed deal was never going to come into fruition it is just worth wondering whether Angela Merkel’s calls on Trump not to give up on the deal would be as forthcoming if it weren’t for the remote possibility that the UK might get there first. 


The worrying possibility that the EU is being held together more because it is uncomfortable to leave, than because it is an attractive group to be in has not gone completely unnoticed however. As recently as 16th November, ex-French President Nicolas Sarkozy, writing in the Financial Times has stated ‘the rift between Europe and its citizens is wider than ever before.’ He recognises the legitimacy of the concerns of British people and extends the hope that they may choose to rejoin the Union once it has been reformed to better serve its members. The refreshing sentiment that rejoining the EU is an option for Britain also makes a welcome change from the finality Brexit is generally spoken about with. Before being defeated in the French primaries on 20th November, Sarkozy was seeking the Republicans’ (‘Les Républicains’) nomination for the 2017 French presidential election and was clearly hoping that EU reform might attract voters away from the far right better than Hollande’s defensiveness. This may just be another political manoeuvre by a member of ‘the elite’, but it might be the only way to save the EU and keep its people on board. If the UK must be punished for leaving, let it be done by making Europe better than it’s ever been before, not by making an example of it for those that might follow. 

Just How Special? Brexit leads to new questions on Anglo-American relations

Ed Bithell

Barack Obama is a man used to having his voice heard. 

And yet, when he came to the UK, often referred to as the US’s closest ally, to express his views on our biggest foreign policy decision in forty years (in fact, since the one we might be about to reverse), that didn’t quite happen. The irony, of course, is that it was the very Eurosceptics who tout our “special relationship” with the with the US as more important than Europe that dismissed his statement that a post-Brexit UK would be at the “back of the queue” in US trade priorities (a statement which clearly showed his pro-British sentiments with its concessions to the word “queue”, whatever Boris Johnson says). 

Suddenly, Obama was irrelevant, his views on Brexit an intrusion on our decision as a nation, despite his government’s policy being the cornerstone of Brexiteers’ trade plans. He was also accused of having bias against the UK informed by his Kenyan ancestry, an accusation that combined the unpleasant tactic of deemphasising his American nationality with a possible admission that the narrative of strong links and trust with former colonies being a somewhat rose-tinted view of the past.

But the cat was out of the bag. Despite what Boris thinks, the elected president of the United States doesn’t think that the UK is more of a priority than the EU - and even if he did, the least active Congress in the history of the United States would be unlikely to hammer out a brand new trade agreement in the foreseeable future for him anyway. On the other side of the political spectrum, Brexit has only been championed by Ted Cruz with even Donald Trump, whom even Boris Johnson found himself dismissing as talking xenophobic nonsense, declining to endorse the Leave camp. 

However, the main reason that nobody else’s views can really be examined is that Barack Obama is pretty much the only politician in the entire United States who has time to spend more than a sentence at a time discussing something other than the next presidential election. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have expressed support for the EU and Ted Cruz has attacked it, both because it stands for big government and because it was an opportunity to contradict Obama, but these are merely facets of their overall statements on US foreign policy - because that is, and will remain, their priority until November, by which time the EU question will be long decided. It is further symptomatic of Donald Trump’s general attitude to politics that he did not express a view - after all, it might find itself in conflict with a more important view that he wishes to hold later on. Presidential candidates aside, prominent members of the US Congress have uniformly declined to express any view. In fact, politicians in the US are remarkably unified in their opinion that it is the decision of the British people alone.

As a result, we see more from the response of the rest of the USA’s political heavyweights (and Ted Cruz) than we do from President Obama. It isn’t that the top flight of American politics are anti-British, or in cahoots with the Eurocrats. It’s simply that our relationship with the EU isn’t their priority. And when we notice that, perhaps we can re-evaluate our relationship with them.

Photo from the Executive Office of the President of the United States.

Hypocrisy at the Human Rights Council: backroom deals and the elevation of repressive Saudi Arabia

Amelia Cooper

The hypocrisy of the UN Human Rights Council has once again revealed itself, with the appointment of Saudi Arabia as the chair on a panel of independent experts.  

From high profile cases, such as the flogging and imprisonment of Raif Badawi, to systematic and entrenched discrimination against women, minorities and dissidents, the Kingdom demonstrates its disdain for human rights and civil liberties on a daily basis. 

Despite this, however, the country enjoys member status at the UN Human Rights Council. Not only does their position undermine a fundamental membership condition, to ‘uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights’, news recently broke that gaining their position included a clandestine vote-trading deal with Britain. 

Leaked diplomatic cables from the Saudi Arabian foreign ministry to the British state that “the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia would support the candidacy of the United Kingdom to the membership of the council for the period 2014-2015 in exchange for the support of the United Kingdom to the candidacy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia”. Another cable revealed that Saudi Arabia transferred $100,000 to Britain for “expenditures resulting from the campaign to nominate the Kingdom for membership of the human rights council for the period 2014-2016”. How this money has been spent remains unclear; however, these cables suggest that Britain was essentially contracted to bolster the reputation of one of the most repressive and abusive states in the world. As such, Britain is complicit in the whitewashing of Saudi Arabia’s reputation and the subversion of the foundational principles of the Human Rights Council. 

As if this isn’t bad enough, Saudi Arabia has just been selected as head of a five-person panel of independent experts, charged with appointing experts to fill UN mandate positions. It is a highly influential role, with the power of shaping approaches to thematic and country-specific roles through the selection of specific candidates. Saudi Arabia’s appointment has been met with anger and indignation – justifiably so – by activists worldwide. Ensaf Haidar, wife of Raif Badawi and leader of an international campaign to free him, said that giving the position to Saudi Arabia was effectively “a green light to start flogging [him] again”.

Saudi Arabia’s position as a member of the Council makes an absolute mockery of the UN system, underscored by the dubious circumstances in which they were elected. Their recent elevation, however, pours salt in the wounds of those languishing under a repressive and brutal state. 

Reliably Unreliable: The EU's Continued Inaction is a Bad Sign

Rose Vennin

Suddenly summoned to react after the shocking picture of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi impassioned citizens to demand a political response, European governments gave the disheartening impression last week of being faced with an unpredictable tsunami which had caught them unawares, and to which a clear response was nowhere to be seen. Yet this crisis comes as no surprise. Since the beginning of 2015, 2500 migrants have died in the Mediterranean while making their journey to Europe, and the on-going crisis has been subject to much discussion during the numerous summits this year. Until now, the European Union seemed to be muddling along, trying - and failing - to reach a consensus among its divided nations, measures taken woefully inadequate for the scale of the crisis. The June summit was such a display of bad-tempered exchanges between the national leaders of Europe with, among others, Italian PM Matteo Renzi reportedly saying “if this is your idea of Europe, you can keep it”, following bitter exchanges with Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite. 

Two months later, the bickering has not ended and Europe’s leaders were yet again at odds over the collective response in the face of pressing public concern. In a letter last Friday, France, Italy and Germany’s Ministers of Foreign Affairs called for “a fair distribution of refugees” throughout the EU. They stated "Europe must protect refugees in need of protection in a humane way - regardless of which EU country they arrive in." In contrast, the Visegrad states - Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia – affirmed their opposition to quotas of refugee relocation between countries at a meeting the same day, exemplifying the discordance that has been reigning for what seems to be too long (if not between these particular countries, then between others).

Indeed what this past week has shed light upon are, once again, the limits of current EU politics and frame of mind. As pressure on member states to come up with a coordinated plan mounts and will continue to rise as more refugees and economic migrants arrive, there is an evident lack of leadership, unity and vision. The long-term challenge for Europe is managing crises: the migrant crisis is one example of a larger issue with the union’s institutions and framework. As with Greece and the Euro crisis, the EU never appears to live up to its citizens’ expectations, moving sluggishly and in cacophony. 

So if Europe cannot actively come up with coherent responses to the challenges it faces, its durability may be threatened. Although there may be an underlying determination from EU leaders to hold the union together, it must be strongly displayed in contrast to their weak performance this summer, or repeated divisions and passiveness will get the better of it. Stumble after stumble, Europe needs to pick itself up once and for all.  Lives depend on it.

A Swarm? Calm down and get some perspective

Will Yeldham

David Cameron recently sparked outrage with human rights activists lampooning both his rhetoric and Britain's policy on refugees. The media backlash did have a tinge of hyperbole about it and overlooked his more reasoned comments urging the prosecution of criminals trafficking both children and refugees. However, it is undeniable that as prime minister he must choose his words more carefully and not further the hostile rhetoric surrounding the issue.

What's more worrying is the stark difference between his recent statement and beliefs he espoused 2 years ago: “I believe that immigration has brought significant benefits to Britain, from those who’ve come to our shores seeking a safe haven from persecution to those who’ve come to make a better life for themselves and their families, and in the process they have enriched our society by working hard, taking risks and creating jobs and wealth for the whole country”. So what's changed? Well British political opinion to the EU for one thing. The principal problem is that this unhelpful language is continuing to cloud and disfigure the realities of the issue for the British public. Many members of the British press and government implicitly or explicitly classify many of those wishing to reach the UK as migrants as opposed to refugees.

Leaving rhetoric aside there is the more immediate problem that Britain is simply not pulling its weight in allaying the Europe-wide crisis. Any notion of helping Italy, which has been struggling to accommodate the 63,000 refugees that have arrived by sea, is caught up in the ongoing debate of Britain's position in the EU which, with the upcoming referendum, is coming to a head. When one looks at the numbers, Britain's ethical position is essentially indefensible. So far this year, more than 180,000 migrants have reached Greece and Italy by sea (others come from Turkey via the land border with Bulgaria). In Calais there are just shy of 3000.

Of course, people ask 'Well what about the next 3000’, and more refugees will come, but is it Britain's duty to stand quibbling on the sidelines of Europe, leaving countries such as Greece and Italy, far less able to process and accommodate migrants, in the lurch? UN Special Representative for International Migration Peter Sutherland argued just this in his statement that the UK should take more migrants as part of a “fair” solution to the problem, saying that “at the moment there is a huge disparity in the numbers that different countries are taking. On any basis, the Germans and the Swedes are taking far more per capita than the United Kingdom.” Many asylum seekers head for Germany, which in 2014 had more than 200,000 applicants. Sweden's next, with 81,000, then Italy, France and Hungary. Britain is way down the list, with only 32,000.

The most recent decision of the British Government to opt out of a voluntary scheme to resettle thousands of refugees arriving in Europe drew criticism from around the world and rightly so. The heated talks at the EU summit in Brussels saw European leaders endeavouring to formulate a solution to the Mediterranean migrant crisis. Whilst a proposal for mandatory quotas was rejected, EU countries agreed on a voluntary intake scheme. In order to relieve the pressure from southern European countries, members agreed to resettle 40,000 refugees now in Italy and Greece and another 20,000 people currently outside the EU. However, David Cameron's government has opted out. Just as depressing has been the range of headlines from tabloid papers calling for the Prime Minister to 'send in the army'. Luckily, home secretary Theresa May rejected calls for this ludicrous policy. Nevertheless, Britain must start pulling its weight, accept the voluntary intake scheme, engage in meaningful dialogue with the EU and most importantly place the humanitarian plight of refugees over short term political appeasement.