EU leaders may well try to punish Britain in an attempt to stave off Continental Eurosceptic movements. But doing so will only hasten the EU’s downfall.
Since the UK voted to leave the European Union more than three months ago, the majority of the headlines and comments have been about what the UK will propose once the government decides to invoke Article 50. Particular scrutiny has been paid to what type of Brexit we want, such as whether the UK should stay in the single market or break all major ties with the EU altogether.
However, what appears to have gone under the radar is what negotiating position the EU will take once we do eventually begin the formal process to leave. This is especially important for Brexit to be a success as, like it or not, the negotiating power lies in mainland Europe, not with Theresa May. Prominent European figures have continued to remind us of this. German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble reiterated the EU’s strong stance on the unnegotiable link between membership of the single market and freedom of movement. He, in no uncertain terms, chastised Boris Johnson for suggesting otherwise, and this appears to be another statement of defiance over the “four freedoms” in European policy.
Whether this is just an attempt to keep the EU project alive remains to be seen, but what can be seen as a statement of intent is the appointment of former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, a strong advocate of the European Union, as lead Brexit negotiator. From this, it appears clear that a strong stance on EU rules is planned for any negotiations, especially after his criticism of the Conservative frontbench in a recent Facebook post. It’s also not a stretch of the imagination to suggest that Theresa May’s implication that Britain will pursue a “hard” Brexit at the Conservative Party conference is because of the growing inevitability that this will be Britain’s only option.
This tactic appears to be an attempt to deter other countries in the European Union from offering similar referendums, which could see the European Union cease to exist. However, what appears to have been overlooked by doing this are the reasons why people voted to leave in the first place. The simple fact of the matter is whilst Mr Verhofstadt may believe in an ever-closer union, 52 per cent of British voters in the referendum didn’t, and the inability of people like him to reform and adapt the EU to reflect the views of the population has resulted in the loss of one of the core members of the organisation.
So if the EU wants to prevent the rise of Euroscepticism in mainland Europe, the decent way to start would be to sit down and negotiate with Britain amicably and with Britain’s interests at heart. This is more likely to avoid a mass exodus of countries from the EU if there is a genuine belief Britain will be worse off outside the EU, regardless of what deal is agreed. Any attempt to reject membership of the single market without freedom of movement is only going to fuel the fire of eurosceptic parties in Germany, France, and the Netherlands, all of which have gained momentum in the polls in recent years ahead of general elections next year.
That’s not to say that the EU can’t benefit from negotiating in Britain’s interest themselves. Whilst the source of their defiance appears to be political ideology, it is important for the largest combined economic zone in the world to keep ties with what is still the fifth largest economy in the world. Much has been made of whether Britain can survive outside of the single market, but how would other European countries be impacted by having to put tariffs on trade with the UK? Even more specifically, the importance of London in the global economy makes us an invaluable ally to Europe, whether its status is diminished or not. Although recoveries to both the FTSE 100 and FTSE 250 are partly down to the drop of the pound, the short term shock to the UK economy has not been to the same extent as predicted pre-referendum.
In short, both British and wider European success post-referendum are inextricably linked. Each cannot thrive without the other’s total cooperation and it would be hugely unwise for any European leader to put their domestic political circumstances over the wider picture. This looks unlikely to happen, especially with both France and Germany preparing for upcoming general elections next year. Additionally, Eastern European countries such as Poland and Romania are likely to want freedom of movement with Britain to strengthen their citizens’ spending power. Add to that the French and Dutch governments’ attempts to quash eurosceptic parties in their own countries, as well as the upcoming and Britain has a massive task to please all parties in upcoming negotiations.
But Europe is taking a hugely risky stance against a democratic vote, which could fuel similar arguments for leaving the EU across the continent. Ironically, trying to save the EU may be exactly what causes it to break apart.