The message emerging from the European Union recently is that the door remains open to the United Kingdom staying in the EU. Such declarations, coming from French President Emmanuel Macron and German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, signal an attempt by senior officials on the Continent to influence British public opinion at a fateful point in British-European relations – Monday’s opening of negotiations for the U.K.’s exit from the EU.
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Despite the positive declarations, it is clear to European leaders that the British voters’ June 2016 Brexit decision will not be undone. However, after the catastrophic snap election called by British Prime Minister Theresa May, leaving her government weak and limited in its negotiating power with the EU, the Europeans are trying to support the British camp that advocates a “soft Brexit” [in which the British would remain part of the single European market in return for free movement of goods, services and capital], which won significant support following the June 8 election.
The second goal of the European declarations is the opposite of the inclusive one. By reminding the British that they can remain in the EU, the Europeans are also making it clear that developments in Britain did not cause Brussels to deviate from its position. If the British want to remain in the single market, they will have to keep their borders open.
Ultimately, the European call on Britain to remain in the EU also includes a fair degree of Schadenfreude. A year or even six months ago, the newspapers were eulogizing the EU and forecasting the rise of the far right on the Continent. But now, after extremist and populist losses in Austria, the Netherlands, France (twice) and in last week’s local elections in Italy, and as German Chancellor Angela Merkel looks to be safely marching toward a fourth term, the European establishment can again feel satisfied with itself. And its joy grows even more in the wake of the chaos afflicting Anglo-Saxon politics across the English Channel and the Atlantic Ocean. The Europeans are not shy to flout their speedy recovery before their English-speaking neighbors.
If before the snap election May emphasized that restoring control over immigration and being freed from the shackles of the European Court were top of her negotiations agenda, now a significant number of Conservative MPs are repeating their demand to put the economy at the top of the list, just as senior economic figures have been asking. Likewise, May’s planned governing coalition partner – Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party – is demanding to keep the border with Ireland, and basically the entire EU, open.
Because the Europeans have the upper hand in much of the negotiations and don’t feel the need to compromise, it is impossible to rule out the possibility that the United Kingdom could end up leaving the EU in March 2019 without an agreement in place. Conversely, the possibility of a full Brexit, in which the U.K. severs all ties with the EU, also remains an option.
However, assuming that the Europeans ultimately show some flexibility and May responds to the demands of economists, most of the Conservative Party and its likely coalition partner, the joint aspiration of all sides could be a very gradual Brexit. The goal would be to preserve the status quo for the long term, while Britain and Brussels complete the long and arduous negotiations over the formulation of new trade agreements. These would hopefully lead the United Kingdom into close relations with the EU – similar to what Brussels already has with Switzerland and Norway.