I know all of us who want to see Britain secure a win-win deal with our EU friends are now supposed to be down in the mouth. But after the first real political dust-up between the UK and the EU commission, I can’t help feeling buoyed. Here’s why.
First, yes, the predictable political point that, in a tough negotiation, we need a strong leader – and Theresa May knocks the spots off chaotic Jeremy Corbyn and feeble Tim Farron.
Second, the off-record briefings from the EU commission shine a light on the EU’s internal politics – which may just prove useful during Brexit.
Start with an obvious point. If some in Brussels truly feel the need to exact a price from Britain, to show it hurts to leave the EU, what does that say about levels of insecurity amongst the EU’s top brass? This argument only makes sense if they fear a sensible deal with Britain – that focuses on trade, security and wider cooperation – that would leave Britain doing rather better outside the political club. It is an argument from Brussels that smacks of self-doubt. It’s not going to convince doubters, across the rest of Europe, to stay in the EU.
Crucially, it cuts directly across the interests of EU member states and their citizens. Remember, Brexit is not all about us. I suspect that the briefing against Theresa May following her dinner with EU commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, was aimed less at Britain, and more at the EU council of 27 member states. After all, it was briefed to a German newspaper. Every time the EU talks about its united position, I am reminded how divided they are.
Compare the EU commission’s latest “recommended” guidelines for the Brexit negotiations with the actual ones the EU council has formally imposed on EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier. The commission’s elaborate, inflated and skewed calculus for any exit fee was avoided in the council guidelines. The council also rebuffed any suggestion that the exit deal has to be agreed before we get onto talking about our future post-Brexit relationship on trade and security. In fact, the council explicitly “welcomes and shares” the UK desire for a “close partnership” on trade and security.
Next, the EU council rejected the commission’s insistence that the European Court of Justice (ECJ) should have jurisdiction over disputes arising from the “exit deal”, let alone EU nationals living in Britain after Brexit. In fact, the council guidelines recognise that we will need a different dispute settlement mechanism (from the ECJ) covering the withdrawal agreement. Disgruntled, the commission will have another go at hardening the EU’s stance at the EU Council on 22 May. But what do these divisions within the EU mean for the diplomacy ahead?
Bilateral negotiations are rarely binary. They normally mask a complex range of underlying interests. The diplomacy is more like a mediation between diverse interests. In this case, hardliners in the EU commission are trying to stretch the starting point of negotiations, and corner Germany and other more pragmatic European nations as they seek to mediate between the commission and Britain. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is livid about Juncker’s behaviour, but feels duty-bound to show a united front. For now.
Germany fears being walloped with the extra budgetary costs from Brexit – assuming the EU can’t adjust its future budget, as any other international organisation or business would expect to do. It wants a deal that mitigates that financial burden, not a collapse in talks. At the same time, Germany sells Britain £25 billion more each year in goods and services, so German firms and workers would be clobbered if trade barriers go up because there is no deal. Add in German elections in September, and the latest spat is the last thing Merkel wants to be grappling with.
These divisions highlight the UK’s leverage in reinforcing the moderating influence of the 27 member states over the more ideological EU commission. Just as telling as the internal EU divisions is the overlap between the EU council guidelines and the UK letter from Theresa May to Donald Tusk triggering Article 50. Whisper quietly, but there is broad agreement covering around two-thirds of issues. Sure, the remaining third contains gaps we need to bridge. That is what the two years of diplomacy should relentlessly focus on.
Steely Theresa May is by far the strongest leader to navigate the bumpy terrain ahead – and secure the best deal for Britain. Equally, amidst the predictable Brussels bluster, we should not lose sight of the simple truth that not all Europeans think alike, nor the under-reported positives and underlying Brexit dynamic that should help cooler EU heads prevail.
Dominic Raab is the Conservative Parliamentary Candidate for Esher & Walton.
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