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.