Brexit Talks Sadly Lack Vision

British Prime Minister Theresa May delivered a speech about her vision for Brexit at Mansion House in London on March 2. (Reuters/Leon Neal/Pool)

The British government and the European Union (EU) are celebrating the latest “milestone” in negotiations to end Britain’s EU membership—agreement on a transition period of twenty-one months after the United Kingdom leaves the EU in just over a year’s time. EU leaders endorsed the agreement at a European Council meeting in Brussels on March 23.

But there should be little joy in the celebration. It is a marker reached by plodding steps in a bureaucratic process characterized by lack of vision and statesmanship on both sides. The deal could have been reached many months ago with greater political determination, and there are much harder negotiations ahead.

Much of this is Britain’s fault. It was the UK that decided to leave—following the June 2016 referendum that rejected EU membership—even though none of its EU partners wanted to see it go. British Prime Minister Theresa May’s government has ruled out the most desirable and easy outcomes by red lines drawn to appease ardent Brexiters on the right of her Conservative Party at home, and she is too weak politically to force her Cabinet to agree on, or even think of, an imaginative long-term solution.

A blinkered May has treated Brexit as a domestic British issue, not a European one, not least because so few of her political adherents understand the EU’s founding principles and the mentality and ideas of its supporters on the Continent. She also has to fight every day to stay in office.

But the EU has also lamentably failed to rise to the occasion, offering legalistic, nit-picking solutions to problems it has itself put on the table; demanding British concessions for any small step forward, including the latest agreement (for which May was obliged to give in for instance on the length of the transition period, EU migrants’ rights, and fishing); fostering an adversarial climate in the talks; and dictating the sequencing and content of the negotiations—often making serious mistakes as it does so.

The EU was quite wrong, for example, to make the explosive issue of the Irish-Northern Irish border a priority in the first round of talks instead of leaving it until the end when it might be more easily soluble. The Irish question, which has bedeviled British politics on and off for centuries, could still wreck prospects for a final agreement—impinging as it does on deep, atavistic passions over national sovereignty and identity on both sides of the border.

The EU’s legalistic approach has fostered further anti-European sentiment in the UK and convinced many Britons on both sides of the Brexit debate that Brussels is out to “punish” Britain—both for violating sacrosanct EU ideals and to deter other countries from following the UK out the door—an intent that EU officials rather unconvincingly deny.

Just like the UK, EU leaders have conducted no strategic review of how to reorder Europe in a partnership between the EU and a non-member Britain in the years ahead—or seriously considered the geopolitical implications at a time when Europe faces a domineering Russia and other challenges to the Western-led global order. Moscow is clearly trying to disrupt the EU through “gray zone” techniques and is even thought by many to have interfered in the Brexit referendum to help secure the vote to leave the EU.

Instead, EU officials appear to delight in comparing Britain to Canada, Norway, Switzerland, Turkey, or even Ukraine—on the grounds that these countries might provide possible models of a future trade agreement with the UK. That is all right as far as it goes.

But these officials tend to forget that Britain, together with its ancient rival France, has for centuries been one of the two great countries that have contributed most to forging the shape and character of Western Europe, alongside Spain, Austria and others in the past, and, much more recently, Germany.

The UK remains a permanent member of the United Nations’ Security Council, a nuclear power with a strong military in European terms, a member of the G7 group of leading industrial nations, the focal point of the British Commonwealth, and the leading European ally of the United States.

Britain may be leaving the EU, but it will remain parked 21 miles off the coast of northern France.

For many reasons, the UK has often proved a difficult EU member. It has stayed out of two of European integration’s prize accomplishments—the euro and the Schengen passport-free zone —but it took a leading role in creating the single market, expanding the EU into Eastern Europe, and combating protectionist leanings in other member countries. It makes major contributions to European diplomacy and international security policy.

So, when May calls for a new kind of “deep and special partnership” with the EU, she deserves to get a much better hearing than she has managed so far from her continental counterparts. It is a well-known tenet of negotiating theory that the two sides should try to reach agreement on a common overall objective and then cooperate in working out how to get there.

May’s political problems at home make it particularly difficult for her to define such an objective. To stay in 10 Downing Street, she relies on the support both of “hard Brexiters” in her Cabinet and party, and on the ten votes of the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party to sustain a razor’s edge majority in Parliament. But the Brexit negotiations are now entering an even more difficult phase in which May must show real leadership or fail.

And instead of standing idly by, the EU’s other leaders need to take a proactive initiative at the highest level to make creative use of the crisis that the UK has created—however much they may resent Britain’s inexplicably destructive behavior—for Europe’s if not for Britain’s sake.

Underlying the entire problem is an indelible and radical difference in philosophical approaches between the two sides of the English Channel, which has caused constant misunderstanding for decades, if not centuries past. Britain believes problems require pragmatic responses (such as the ad hoc types of regulatory convergence and divergence it has proposed for future trade, which have been scathingly rejected by the EU). The continentals put written legal principles, ideals, and ideology first, an attitude of which the British mind is deeply suspicious.

One result is that the EU negotiators believe that in seeking practical solutions the UK is trying to undermine the principles of the EU’s single market, which they denounce as “cherry-picking” and cannot accept.  EU governments can swallow exceptions to their own rules—for example, past French and German violations of EU budget and economic criteria—provided the rules are accepted in principle first.

The British hate accepting anything in principle because they believe they would be committing themselves to as yet undefined future obligations. But May would stand a much better chance of success if she could only say, “Of course we accept the principles of the single market—we are just looking for some exceptions”—rather than “we reject the single market, but we want the following preferential arrangements for entering it.”

That is almost certainly asking too much, given the hostility of the Brexit extremists in her party, but the British should understand that intellectual presentation is much more important on the Continent than in the UK.

Another favorite EU concept that is generally strange to Britain—outside the labor union movement—is that of “solidarity.” A clever British negotiator would make use of it. The UK is still an EU member. If May had been able to bring herself to go straight to her partners when she took power after the referendum and say, “I’m in terrible political trouble and I need your help,” she could have changed the whole tenor of the negotiations.

It’s too late for that now. More than philosophical attitudes are at stake. Huge, complicated, and real problems need to be tackled and there probably will not be enough time to do so. But the cultivation of political will to succeed is a vital ingredient—and neither side has shown much talent in that field so far. Indeed, May and her Brexit colleagues have set a tone of truculence and defiance.

As a start, the EU could stop continually emphasizing that the UK has to be worse off outside the EU than in it. Everyone knows that by now, and it is true virtually by definition. Other countries have shown no sign of wanting to leave—in fact Britain’s travails have deterred others from toying with the idea rather than encouraged them.

If, however, any other country did wish to leave, the correct EU response would be to let it go. Any proper form of governance depends on popular consent, and people who genuinely want to leave should not be coerced into staying.

In any case, the 27-member EU is too unwieldy for the deeper integration now contemplated by many in the core countries. It would be easier with fewer members—as indeed it will be without Britain. From that perspective, a smaller, more compact EU might indeed be grounds for celebration in integrationist circles.

Reginald Dale is a senior fellow and director of the Transatlantic Media Network in the Atlantic Council’s Future Europe Initiative. He is a former European editor and US editor of the Financial Times and a syndicated columnist for the Paris-based International Herald Tribune.