Event Report: High – Level Policy Dialogue, 4 April 2019
Charlotte Sieber-Gasser (DCU Brexit Institute)
On 4 April 2019, Grant Thornton hosted the High-Level Policy Dialogue between Georgios Papacostantinou (EUI School of Transnational Governance, former Finance Minister of Greece) and Denis MacShane (former Europe Minister of the UK), organised by the DCU Brexit Institute. Given the obvious question marks on the table with regard to the Brexit-process, the two speakers were able to shed light on where we are today and where we may be heading in the nearer future.
After summarising most recent events, Georgios Papacostantinou pointed to a number of strategic miscalculations in the UK-approach to Brexit: triggering Art. 50 TEU without knowing exactly why and what for, entering into negotiations with the EU with an impossible trilemma (no participation in the customs unions and single market, maintaining no border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland and ensuring no border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain), a misplaced belief in UK’s leverage, and ill-prepared negotiators. In particular, he referred to “Grexit” as an experience from which British negotiators could have learned that they cannot blackmail the EU or bypass its bureaucrats. Later in the discussion, Denis MacShane offered an explanation for triggering Art. 50 TEU in March 2017, despite the obvious absence of a specific goal for the process: avoiding participation in European elections. He suggested that it could have been predictable two years ago that participation in European elections would fuel anti-EU sentiments and therewith neither benefit the Brexit-process nor the functioning of the EU institutions.
Georgios Papacostantinou argued that the option of revoking Art. 50 TEU was an unlikely outcome of the Brexit-process at this moment. He considers the political and social costs of revoking to be very high – perhaps too high. On the other hand, among the other options, “no deal”, “some deal” or “long extension”, all of them were still on the table. Given that EU’s reaction to Brexit was shock and concern, followed by reunion and closing ranks, asking for yet another extension to Art. 50 TEU will be a humiliating experience for the British government, Georgios Papacostantinou mentioned. Such a long extension would be a nightmare, added Denis MacShane, given the continuing campaigning for hard Brexit by a substantial portion of press and politics in the UK, which was going to continue in all likelihood throughout any given period of an extension.
According to Denis MacShane, it would mean an economic, social and cultural shock for the UK, were it to leave the EU indeed. Both the EU’s and the UK’s voice in the world would become considerably weaker were they to go separate ways, and the EU would loose an important ally within, which used to stand up for traditional European values such as democracy, or the rule of law. Georgios Papacostantinou complemented, that from the perspective of some EU members, it might have its merits, were the UK to leave the EU, since it would move the institutional power more towards Eastern-European countries. However, he considers such thinking to originate in a narrow national attitude. Rather, Georgios Papacostantinou mentioned, the geopolitical dimension of Brexit should not be underestimated: While the EU may be relieved to see that Eurosceptics are no longer on the rise in the EU, an actual “Brexit” will still be a defeat of the European project. It would, however, be a great victory for the European project, were the UK to change its mind throughout the process.
With regard to chances of success of the newest development in the Brexit-process, the talks between Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn, Denis MacShane remains cautious. The success of this “miraculous” new approach to Brexit requires that the Prime Minister is prepared to compromise, as well as that such a compromise can be sold by the leader of the opposition as a victory. On a related note, Denis MacShane suggested that the reason why the Prime Minister was so firmly insisting on the backstop as a minimum fall-back option for the Irish border was because she was very-well aware of the implications of hard Brexit on peace in Northern Ireland and Ireland. He regrets that the Prime Minister did, to date, not address the peace-keeping-dimension of the backstop with her own party and with the general public.
Georgios Papacostantinou finally also addressed whether the outcome of the Brexit-referendum was “the people’s will” and needed to be taken at face-value. He referred to the well-known facts that the referendum was influenced by foreign powers, that it is known in the meantime, that voters were voting “leave” for various reasons – not all of them necessarily directly linked with EU membership, and that a relatively low percentage of registered voters participated in the vote at all. In his view, the outcome of the Brexit-referendum was therefore neither legally nor institutionally binding. He also recalled that the result of the referendum in Greece was finally ignored, which at first may not have been very democratic, but since the constituency in Greece no longer regrets its government’s u-turn today, it could be considered democratic after all.
The debate concluded with a lively round of Q&A. While Europe may be changing, it was not all going down the drain according to Denis MacShane: most recent victories of liberal, progressive, green and social-democratic forces in elections all over the continent were a hopeful sign of a new era around the corner.
Last but not least, it should not be forgotten what follows after Brexit: for instance, the status of Ireland’s carve-outs (e.g. Schengen-area) will certainly want to be re-addressed by the EU should the UK have left the EU.
Charlotte Sieber-Gasser is a PostDoc Research Fellow at the DCU Brexit Institute