“Lose-lose”, the expression chosen by Donald Tusk to describe the 585-page Withdrawal Agreement, sums up the sadly ambivalent feelings of many continental politicians and commentators about the “Brexit deal”. Very few share the view of Cécile Ducourtieux in Le Monde that Michel Barnier and his team gave away nothing and won in straight sets. If and when the pesky UK leaves at midnight on March 29, 2019 there may even be a few tears shed. And not just because Theresa May, “smiling but shattered”, played a good game.
“Tumult and uncertainty wherever you look,” writes Klaus-Dieter Frankenberger, foreign editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Germany’s leading conservative daily, in a short commentary entitled “Fog on the Thames”. “Here it is remarkable that, with Brexit, a subject affecting the EU’s very concept of itself, the EU-27 have not been seized by panic attacks. Although it too has a price to pay.”
In the run-up to Wednesday’s “deal”, all the talk was of how frankly bored the EU-27, including Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker, Commission president, were with the whole sorry Brexit/Article 50 saga almost 30 months since that fateful and narrow vote of June 23, 2016. EU leaders, it is often said, have simply had enough of the Brits. What’s more, they want to move on to other pressing agenda items: eurozone reform, aka sorting out German economic imbalances; migration/asylum regime; digital single market; taxing Big Tech; rule of law in Poland, Hungary, Romania. Not forgetting Italy’s assault on eurozone budgetary orthodoxy/neoliberal austerity.
Above all, senior officials say, there is little more than six months to the European Parliament elections of late May 2019 when populists of right and left threaten to storm the citadels of Brussels and Strasbourg, making the European Parliament ungovernable and adding to the paralysis often afflicting the EU. Political groups/families are busy choosing their Spitzenkandidaten to be Juncker’s successor (if the European Council abides by the 2014 precedent, which is itself open to doubt), with no clear road ahead.
So, Konrad Szymánski, Poland’s EU affairs minister, summed up the feelings of many when he said: “Just the fact of the agreement is very positive and very promising.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel voiced similar sentiments in a tone of exhausted relief: “I’m very happy that, after lengthy and not always easy negotiations, a proposal could be reached.”
And reports from Brussels made it equally plain that, while officials, including Barnier himself, are acutely aware of May’s possibly insurmountable problems in winning a parliamentary majority and/or her terminal position as prime minister, the deal is the deal: there can be no amendments/ renegotiation even though they may harbour some doubts of their own (as in France). And, who knows, maybe no guarded welcome for the repentant sinner who recants of Art 50 and asks sheepishly to stay in..the font of patience with British truculence is empty. Let alone trust as Simon Kuper reports here.
Frankenberger is not alone in seeing this not so much as a turning-point in EU as in UK history, echoing the frequent references to 1956 and Suez and the extraordinary imperialist hangovers suffered by Brexiters such as the European Research Group. “These people, among them nostalgics and demagogues, are convinced – or at least act as if they were – that a hard Brexit will herald a new dawn if only the links to the EU can be severed asap.” If there is any residual sadness that the EU, in losing the UK, is also losing a country with huge diplomatic and military experience it’s pretty subdued.
What matters more to our fellow Europeans is that the EU-27, marshalled by Barnier and his team, have so far kept together: there are no more exits planned, not even in Italy. But, once Brexit goes away (if it ever does), the real tasks of moving forward will take centre-stage – and, here, that unity cannot be guaranteed. Merkel and Emmanuel Marcon may fondly embrace each other, head on shoulder, during Armistice centenary celebrations but their policy choices and strategic options are unaligned. No wonder Brussels and other EU capitals want shot of Brexit.