12 December 2017

Suck it up, Britain: now you know how to negotiate with the EU

Joris Luyendijk

The announcement this morning that Britain and the EU are finally ready to start actual negotiations is welcome news for Europeans. Almost 18 months after the referendum, the Brits have done what every reality-based observer knew they would have to do eventually: they have buckled. By giving in to each and every EU demand, the May government is showing that it is finally learning to behave like the junior partner it is. Brussels and EU member states are far too polite and constructive to say so out loud, but for the next decade or so the default position for Britain in its dealings with the EU is simple: you suck it up.

In spite of all the insults, blackmail, hostility and ineptitude, many in Europe still see the British as friends 

A more realistic British attitude helps decrease the odds of a chaotic and deeply harmful Brexit. With the exception of Vladimir Putin and any disaster capitalists betting on a collapse of the British economy, this is more good news for all involved. But commentators this morning were quick to point out that the talks about when to start talks were always the easy part. As the European council president Donald Tusk said on Twitter this morning: “Breaking up is hard. But breaking up and building a new relationship is much harder.”

So far, EU member states have shown a degree of unity that is often described as “remarkable”. But how remarkable is it really to keep one’s ranks closed when all Britain does is talk to itself about itself, leaving it entirely unclear what kind of Brexit it intends to pursue? Now that the actual talks are about to begin, the May government will be forced to choose between the options for a future relationship that the EU is offering, from a “soft Brexit” where Britain loses all political influence in Brussels but remains a member in all but name, to a “hard Brexit” where Britain assumes the same status as Canada or Turkey, a so-called “third country” with or without some sort of free trade agreement.

What is regulatory alignment? Show

On Friday morning, major European news outlets such as Le Figaro in France and Die Zeit in Germany did not even lead their online editions with the breakthrough in Brussels. This reflects just how less important Brexit is for Europeans. But as Britain’s preferences become clear this lack of interest may change and so might political tensions.

The truth is that Brexit is going to play out differently for different member states, and so unity may very well make way for hard bargaining and open conflict on what kind of options to offer Britain. Should the Brexit dream team in May’s government be foolish enough to try to resurrect the age-old British policy of dividing the continent by fomenting conflict, this process may turn very ugly. Especially so in light of the coming negotiations over the next seven-year EU budget (“multi-annual financial framework” in the poetic language of Brussels) and unprecedented animosity between Poland and Hungary on the one hand and many other EU members on the other.

“We miss you already,” said a clearly shocked Tusk after the notification of Article 50. This still seems the majority attitude in Brussels, though it is hard not to notice a subtle shift in attitudes. The hostility that Brexiters keep projecting on to the EU is all but absent and no European newspaper has ever run headlines on its front page like the infamous Sun headline “your money or your lives – trade with us and we’ll help fight terror”.

There is no wish to “punish” Britain; why would you punish somebody for cutting off their own arm? Feelings of denial, shock or anger in Europe seem largely gone, too, and, these days, sentiment in EU corridors is perhaps best described as genuine pity. You wish this degree of helplessness on your enemies only. And in spite of all the insults, blackmail, hostility and ineptitude over the past few years many in Europe still see the British as friends.

The big question is whether this will still be the case in five years, once the reality of Brexit sinks in on both sides of the Channel.

• Joris Luyendijk is a Dutch journalist

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