Understanding UK-EU relations in global context
The result of the UK’s decision to leave the European Union arrived early on a bright Friday morning in June. Just after nine o’clock, I interviewed former UK Prime Minister, Tony Blair, a man for whom the EU is central. He explained to me – and BBC World News’ millions of viewers – why, in his view, Brexit was a mistake. Mr. Blair is undeniably a man of rare political skill, but he was eloquently making the case in an argument that had just come to a shuddering halt. Evidence of that was all around when I travelled to Downing Street to join a press throng digesting David Cameron’s resignation. The conversation had rapidly shifted from will we leave, to how, when and led by whom?
Four days later, I was at a European Union summit in Brussels. It took place at the European Council. This represents the 28 national leaders of the EU, so when they’re in town, as they were in the feverish days after Brexit, it’s to the Council’s cavernous home that journalists and politicians descend en masse.
In the centre of the European Council is a vast press floor with a roof far, far above letting the daylight in. There is table after table teeming with phone and lap-top-toting hacks from Europe and beyond, and around the press floor are briefing rooms used by the leaders. Things are rarely simple with the EU, but the size of the briefing room and how full it is almost always correlates closely with the importance of the person speaking.
This was an EU summit like no other. David Cameron had arrived to tread new ground as the leader of a country that was opting out. And at the centre of these talks was a strange, some would say absurd, state of affairs.
The UK’s referendum on leaving the European Union was an internal affair – a discussion and decision among its people. Though the entire world knew the result, in practical terms the EU had been told nothing. All of a sudden we all became experts on Article 50 of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty. This article needs to be triggered if the process of leaving is to begin. And the referendum result triggered many things – euphoria, despair and everything in between – but not Article 50.
This left the 28 EU leaders with everything and nothing to talk about. This brings me to the first of the two matters on which the EU appears to mean what it says. The leaders of France, Germany and Italy agreed “there will be no formal or informal talks about Britain’s exit” before article 50 is triggered. So did all the other leaders. If they’d agreed a script, they certainly stuck to it. More significantly still this wasn’t a hollow display of unity at a time of crisis. They meant it.
In the months that have followed, I and many other journalists have searched for evidence that behind-the-scenes the EU’s powerbrokers are gently exploring their options with the UK. Perhaps they’re good at hiding it. Much more likely is that there’s nothing to find.
This works both ways for Theresa May. It affords her some time to develop her relationships with those with whom she must negotiate. And time to add flesh to the bones of her negotiating position and to build political support at home around it.
One of the myriad curiosities of Brexit, is that the majority of Members of Parliament, including the Prime Minister herself, wanted to remain. Last week in the House of Commons, the government resisted the suggestion that parliament should vote on the UK’s negotiating position. But even if it fends off that idea it’ll need a firm political foundation to its dealings with the EU. The referendum result of course provides that but MPs matter, and these months before Article 50 help Theresa May work on building parliamentary support.
The EU’s refusal to talk though leaves her short of time as well. The triggering of Article 50 begins a process that must be completed within two years. That might sound a lot, but when you’re untangling more than 40 years of legal and economic ties, and replacing them with some new ones, it’s no time at all. The chance to jump-start that process through diplomatic back-channels would perhaps help the negotiations to hit the ground running. It could also provide information on where the EU has room for manoeuvre. It’s not going to happen though.
The second matter on which the EU appears absolute is the single market. You can take your pick of near identical statements on this. Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council for instance, says, ‘Access to the single market means acceptance of all four freedoms. No single market à la carte…’ The four freedoms are the free movement of people, goods, capital and services. Bearing in mind that immigration, and unchecked immigration in the case of the EU, was the most potent issue of the referendum, this leaves Theresa May with limited options. That’s why the UK press is awash with discussion of Hard Brexit versus Soft Brexit. The defining feature of Hard Brexit is leaving the EU’s single market and there’s more and more evidence that this may be the UK’s chosen route.
You can argue, however, it is less about choosing a route but rather taking the only one available. By opting out of the EU with immigration as a chief concern, the British people have made free movement politically impossible. By being relentless in its insistence that free movement is a condition of the single market, the EU is getting close to making that politically impossible too. As Donald Tusk put it last week, the choice is ‘hard Brexit or ‘no Brexit’. Of course, negotiating positions are just that, a starting point, but the EU’s been so explicit few expect it to row back on this issue. That may be unwelcome news to some who voted out.
I’ll be back in Brussels this week for the latest EU summit and the first at which Theresa May attends as the UK’s leader. There won’t be negotiations, nor compromises offered on the single market. But by being so firm on the latter, the EU knows it’s already shaping those negotiations whenever they begin.
The challenge for the Prime Minister is to start finding the relationships and policies that will work for the leaders she meets this week and for the country she represents. She’s a formidable politician known for her steel and success, but Theresa May would accept this summit and beyond into Brexit will be by far her greatest test.Atkins is presenter, BBC’s innovative TV and radio news programme
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