Brexit has prompted unity - but not in Britain

PUBLISHED: 17:20 31 May 2017 | UPDATED: 17:20 31 May 2017

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Brexit has generated an unprecedented degree of unity between the other 27 EU member states.

Given that the EU is a diverse, inherently fractious, multinational organisation already struggling with the strains caused by the financial and refugee crises, such solidarity is remarkable.

But the powerful reasons underlying this unity make it likely to endure throughout the negotiations on Britain’s departure.

The EU’s survival and success is a fundamental national interest of every member state. Unlike Britain in its current state of mind, our 27 erstwhile partners know that EU membership enhances their own political, economic and security positions.

As Agata Gostyńska-Jakubowska of the Centre for European Reform (CER) explains, “the sense across Europe is that there is a lot at stake – even the fate of the EU. The EU27 need it to be clear that Britain’s relationship with the EU after withdrawal cannot compare to the benefits of membership. If the UK was offered preferential treatment after Brexit, it could encourage Eurosceptics in other member states to push for a renegotiation of their terms of membership”.

The imperative of preserving the EU’s existence is binding member states together across the usual fault lines. As Gostyńska-Jakubowska says “it is rare for the net contributors to the EU budget and the net beneficiaries of it to be so united. But on Brexit, their interests are aligned. Net payers do not want to compensate for the loss of Britain’s share and beneficiaries do not want to lose out”.

The outstanding financial dues and agreed budget contributions that Britain is threatening to wriggle out of paying cannot simply be crossed off the balance sheet. This money has to come from somewhere. Brexiteers loudly trumpet how the referendum provided a democratic mandate for leaving the EU. But they ignore the fact that our EU27 counterparts are accountable to their voters too. No European politician is going to tell their own taxpayers to cough up so that Britain can be let off from paying its bills.

EU unity on Brexit is reinforced by the knowledge that they control the negotiations agenda. Being in command of the process limits the impulse for bickering about tactics among the EU member states and institutions. Regardless of Brexiteer bluster, Britain is the much smaller party and far more dependent on trade with the EU than vice-versa.

While the EU would prefer to negotiate a reasonable agreement for all concerned, it is under no obligation or serious pressure to do so until Britain agrees to meet its obligations. If there is no deal before the Article 50 imposed deadline, it is Britain that will fall off a cliff, not the EU.

Important though they are, the significance of finance and trade issues should not be overstated. There has long been a British tendency, particularly in Eurosceptic circles, to view the EU as a mostly economic, entirely transactional arrangement: a trade-off between what we put in and what we get out. On the continent, there is a more widespread understanding of why the EU was established: to create a system of cooperation in the mutual interest that would prevent any further catastrophic conflicts in Europe. Brexit has been badly timed to coincide with several years of significant First and Second World War anniversaries. These commemorations are reinforcing awareness across Europe of the reasons for the EU’s existence and increasing the determination to preserve it.

For the EU when dealing with Brexit, political considerations take precedence over economics. All of Europe’s leaders are under pressure from opponents at home. But these democratic realities do not give the British government much leverage to undermine EU unity. Whether their opponents are to the right or the left, liberal or nationalist, Europhile or Eurosceptic, the outcome on Brexit policy is the same. No other member state government is planning to leave the EU and it is overwhelmingly in all of their interests to ensure that the UK is seen to be worse off for having done so.

Indeed, electoral events are putting Britain further out of step with the rest of Europe. The chances of any other country electing a government that might seek to leave the EU are receding fast.

Anti-EU populists have already been seen off in the Netherlands. The newly elected President of France, Emmanuel Macron, campaigned on a promise to reinvigorate the EU and roundly defeated the anti-European extremists of the Front National as a result. The success of his presidency will to some extent depend on achieving this aim.

An essential part of Macron’s strategy will be reviving the French-German tandem at the EU’s heart. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is clearly delighted at the prospect of France being a stronger EU partner again. Ever since its foundation, the EU has been central to Germany’s political stability and economic prosperity. It provided the framework for the Germans to build themselves a new role as a peaceful neighbour after the horrors of the Second World War. Hence, Merkel sees protecting the EU and ensuring its success as being a fundamental German interest. The only candidate with a chance of unseating her in the German general election later this year is the SPD’s Martin Schulz. He is a former president of the European Parliament and has even more strongly pro-EU views than Merkel.

The aggressively arrogant conduct and self-delusion of the British government and its media cheerleaders over the past year has enhanced EU unity too. It has drained away any lingering goodwill towards Britain before the negotiations have even started. Few in the EU, including our once closest allies, now care very much about what happens to Britain or its government. They are even more exclusively focused on protecting their own interests during the negotiations than would have already been the case.

Perhaps prompting EU unity is part of Theresa May’s hitherto well-concealed cunning plan. Contrary to the instincts of most Brexit headbangers, division amongst its negotiating partners would be bad news for Britain. The timetable to agree a deal, or at least transitional arrangements, is already perilously short. Disagreements within the EU over their common negotiating position would cause delays that the UK can ill afford.

None of this is to deny that there are some different priorities and levels of concern about Brexit amongst the EU27. As has been well-documented, the potential impact on Ireland is particularly huge in many crucial respects. Others, such as Belgium and the Netherlands, have especially close economic relations with the UK. Nor can it be ruled out that some member states will dabble with taking advantage of the Brexit negotiations to gain concessions in other policy areas. The most probable culprits are the unscrupulous nationalist governments of Hungary and Poland. But even they know that they need the funding, security and opportunities for their citizens that the EU provides and are unlikely to push their luck too far.

Ultimately, any fraying of the 27 remaining EU member states’ solidarity on Brexit will be short-lived, if it happens at all. Their overriding interest is ensuring the survival of the EU and the impressive unity of purpose they have shown so far is almost certain to be sustained.

• Paul Knott is a writer on international politics. He spent 20 years as a British diplomat, with postings to Romania, Dubai, Uzbekistan, Ukraine, Russia and the European Union in Brussels

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