The European Council Confronts the Post-Brexit Future
by Andrew Duff
The European Council (22-23 March) has to assess the strategic impact of Brexit on the future of Europe. Although the heads of government have followed the Brexit saga with regret turning to alarm, it is the Commission’s Task Force 50 under Michel Barnier that has done the heavy lifting. The European Council has crafted the guidelines to mandate the Commission, but the heads of government have kept their distance from the day-to-day negotiations.
Now the time has come for the leaders to intervene decisively in progressing an act of secession that will leave the EU smaller, weaker and poorer. Traditionally, the European Council has known how to treat its neighbours when the countries concerned were small and compliant or were hoping themselves to advance towards membership. Irritants, like the Swiss, were managed by the Commission and the Court of Justice. Embarrassments, like Turkey, were frozen out of the circle of European summitry. The secession of the UK, however, changes the game of neighbourhood politics beyond recognition.
The European Council has to reach a consensus on what kind of future relationship it wants with its ex-partner. While the leaders will be guided by the spirit of good neighbourliness (as defined in Article 8 TEU), nobody should be in any doubt that Brexit does not solve Europe’s British problem. A Britain in steep decline resenting its exclusion from continental power politics could be subversive, litigious and nationalistic. Tony Blair was right to warn recently about Britain being a potential ‘pole of disunity’ for Europe (1 March).
The heads of government should be aware that what they do to and for Britain will have knock-on consequences for the future of the European Economic Area and Switzerland. Other more difficult neighbours, notably Turkey and Ukraine, are watching the aftermath of Brexit with great attention. Precedent matters.
The specific task of the European Council is to set guidelines for a political declaration on the framework for Britain’s future relationship with the EU. This declaration will be referred to in the Council decision that wraps up the Article 50 secession treaty as well as in the European Parliament’s consent to that treaty. It will have legal consequences.
Had trust blossomed between Michel Barnier and David Davis, this declaration could have been fairly short and generalised. But lacking such trust the declaration is gathering in length and detail. Because most suspect that Theresa May will not be the prime minister who negotiates the final deal, the importance of committing the British to a well-defined future landing-zone becomes paramount. Chancellor Merkel and President Macron also need to use the political declaration to corral the other, weaker European leaders behind a uniform approach to the imminent trade talks.
The EU side is working hard to interpret Mrs May’s encoded speeches and to fill in the gaps left in her sketchy vision of ‘deep and special partnership’. Brussels suspects that the prime minister has not yet divulged even to her cabinet a full picture of where she wants to lead the country. In such circumstances, the EU institutions have little choice but to offer the UK a minimal free trade agreement plus cooperation in security and science. President Tusk’s draft guidelines for the European Council say, tactfully, that were the British position “to evolve, the Union will be prepared to reconsider its offer”.
The significance of the political declaration rises as work on the Article 50 withdrawal agreement nears conclusion. The European Council will confirm the agreement reached provisionally on 19 March between the Commission and the UK on the draft secession treaty, including the transition arrangements. The Westminster parliament is beginning at last to understand the largely technical nature of the Article 50 treaty on which they have demanded (and will get) a vote in October. What the EU is offering the UK is a legal document that extricates both sides from their obligations to the other. The complex issue of the Irish border apart, the real politics of Brexit lie elsewhere — and the Irish problem is not soluble outwith the final agreement on trade.
As they search for the lodestar, the heads of government could do worse than follow the European Parliament. On 14 March, a large majority of MEPs proposed that the UK seek a formal EU association agreement (on the legal base of Article 217 TFEU) that embraces a comprehensive trade and investment partnership and lots of political collaboration. As I have written elsewhere, robust joint UK-EU institutions would not only minimise conflict but would also ensure that the future relationship is dynamic. This week Donald Tusk and his colleagues have the chance to lead Mrs May firmly but gently in the direction of an association agreement — and quickly.
Andrew Duff is President of the Spinelli Group and a Visiting Fellow at the European Policy Centre. @AndrewDuffEU