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Since Britain left, the EU has become stronger

Economic hardship and war have not pushed Europe’s nations apart, but closer together

Image: The New European

In 2014, Jean-Claude Juncker took office as new president of the EU’s executive, dramatically characterizing his as the “last chance” Commission. Four years of divisions over saving the economic and monetary union after it was plunged into a financial and sovereign debt crisis had taken their toll even on Juncker, a seasoned politician with many EU crises under his belt. Twelve months later, there had been no healing of divisions between national governments. On the contrary, the feeling of crisis had deepened. A Greek referendum rejected an EU aid and reform package, resulting in a near Grexit from the Euro. A few weeks later, in August 2015, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel welcomed Syrian refugees with her “Wir schaffen das”, “we can do it”, but Germany’s commitment further divided EU member states and fuelled acrimony between them on the question of hosting refugees. Then came June 2016 and the UK’s vote to leave, it presented an unprecedented challenge for the EU.

The divisions between member states before 2016 may have given hope to those who expected Brexit to bring about the collapse of the Union. Donald Trump told Michael Gove in an interview for The Times on 16 January 2017 that Brexit was “a great thing” and that “others will leave”. The fear of contagion fuelled the EU’s unified approach towards the UK in 2016 and 2017. National governments wanted to ensure that the departure of one member did not pose an existential challenge for the EU as a whole. EU leaders also seized on Brexit as an opportunity to reaffirm their choice for European integration and, in doing so, rediscover the value of its achievements, such as frictionless trade within the single market. The UK’s decision gave the EU a chance to demonstrate why membership mattered, what its benefits were and how together the power of EU countries is increased in international negotiations. Ireland’s influence in the Brexit negotiations was closely followed by small states on the continent as an example of how the EU protects a vital national interest of one of its members.

In my book “Inside the Deal: How the EU got Brexit done”, I contrast the EU’s unity with the political turbulence in the UK which lacked a common vision of a new relationship with the EU. Many of the factors and forces I discuss, which poisoned UK politics at that time and shaped the Brexit negotiations, are now gone. There were persistent myths that Brexit could be sabotaged by Michel Barnier, despite the EU’s expressed priority to strike a deal and deliver an “orderly Brexit” and not a chaotic one. The threat of “no deal” was levied to make the EU budge, which mistook the EU’s negotiation mandate as mere posturing rather than as an affirmation that the EU was not going to change how it operates because of the UK’s decision to leave. In September 2020 Boris Johnson’s advisors suggested that violating the agreed provisions on Northern Ireland would necessarily make the EU more lenient in ongoing negotiations on the future relationship.

Now that Brexit has happened, these myths have dissipated together with the divisions in the House of Commons, which lasted until Johnson won his decisive majority in the December 2019 general election. Gone is the ticking clock towards a cliff-edge of no-deal. The Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) agreed on 24 December 2020 created a new equilibrium of rights and obligations in the EU-UK relationship with provisions on trade, the level playing field, fisheries, security cooperation and many other matters that had led to heated discussions and threats from Johnson to walk away with no deal. The TCA offers fewer benefits to the UK compared to EU membership but also fewer obligations, as per its choice to leave.

When it was finally agreed, the Windsor framework set out new arrangements for Northern Ireland, made possible by a cooperative approach to negotiations that replaced Johnson’s boxing gloves. The agreement signed by Rishi Sunak and Ursula von der Leyen means that the EU and the UK can work more closely together at a technical level to manage any risk to the integrity of the EU’s single market deriving from the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. It also means that exploiting the full potential of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement can become the focus of ongoing work between the EU and the UK.

Confrontation with the EU was never a good way to approach negotiations with Brussels. A negotiation style based on mutual engagement and respect, each party acting from within its own legitimate interests, yielded much better results. The Windsor deal emerged from a process of two parties listening carefully to each other in a search for common ground, which was not often the UK’s negotiation style during the Brexit period. In early 2017, Theresa May threatened the EU by affirming publicly that “no deal” was better than a bad deal even before negotiations had started. Boris Johnson repeatedly issued ultimatums and fixed artificial deadlines to engineer a binary choice between a deal and the UK “walking away”, which had no effect on the EU’s substantive positions.

A lot has happened in the world since 2016. After initial divisions between national governments, EU countries stood together to tackle the pandemic and created new economic recovery tools, including an €800bn post-pandemic borrowing capacity to fund public investments. The Ukraine war highlights the importance of shared values between EU and the UK but also reinforces defence cooperation within the EU, with EU funding of national efforts to send military equipment. The pandemic and the war brought the EU into new territory of joint purchases of vaccines, gas and military material, which are no longer exclusively in the hands of national governments. These global shocks also strengthened the idea that international trade is no longer about economic efficiencies alone, but also about resilience and the risks of trade dependencies. The clean tech transition is entering a race to the top with Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act and its generous subsidies or tax credits, to which the EU is responding with its own industrial plan to accelerate its transition to net-zero. Concepts such as “energy sovereignty” and “technological sovereignty” are now part and parcel of Brussels policy discussions, which navigate the economic efficiency of open markets with a geopolitical need to diversify supply chains.

These developments have made today’s EU stronger than the one the UK decided to leave. Unlike the previous crises over the Euro and migration before 2016, the latest external shocks have unified EU countries more than they have divided them. It is no coincidence that nine further European countries have stated they want to join and that EU enlargement policy has new wind in its sails. Michel Barnier said during negotiations that Brexit was a “lose-lose” situation. It was, but the EU has emerged as a more confident entity, despite losing a big economy and a global diplomatic player.

With the Windsor deal, the time has come to improve the relationship between that stronger EU and the UK. At book launches in London, people repeatedly asked me what “Brussels” would think about the UK “re-joining the EU”, a hypothetical question on which a national debate in the UK would be needed first, it seems to me. The question suggests that many people in the UK still regret Brexit. Living in regret, however, can cloud the discussion on how to make the future better. The Trade and Cooperation Agreement outlines a number of provisions that could be activated, such as the UK participating in Horizon Europe, the EU’s research and innovation programme that funds cross-border collaborations. This and other steps, such as more structures for regulatory dialogue and cooperation, may not satisfy those in the UK who advocate rejoining but it would represent a sea change from only two years ago. 

In the early months of 2021, the UK refused to grant full diplomatic status to the EU ambassador in London, which may seem anecdotal now but was back then an expression of a policy in which the UK ignored the EU as much as possible and privileged bilateral relationships with its member countries. Part of why that changed is the Ukraine war and the need to coordinate sanctions against Russia. Two years is a long time in politics, to paraphrase Harold Wilson, and events have lent perspective: the EU-UK relationship needs to move to a more cooperative partnership based on mutual trust.

Stefaan De Rynck is an EU official, previously a senior aide to Michel Barnier and author of the book “Inside the Deal – How the EU got Brexit done” (Agenda Publishing 2023). He writes in a personal capacity.

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