Article Published October 8th, 2020
This excerpt is a preview of the book “Solidarity and the Future of Europe” that will be released in 2021 as part of the TEPSA book series “The Future of Europe: views from the Capitals”.
A recurrent claim of the Leave campaign during the 2016 EU referendum was that it would be easy for the United Kingdom, once it had decided to leave the EU, to agree with the larger countries of the Union, notably Germany and France, an advantageous future economic relationship between the UK and the EU. Events since 2016 have shown how misconceived was this prediction. But the misconception was illuminating for its misjudgement of the European Union and the solidarity between its members.
It had always been a source of irritation to some in the United Kingdom that within the European Union their country needed to negotiate on a basis of equality with smaller countries such as Luxembourg and Ireland. This was seen as an affront to national pride, in a way that negotiations with France or Germany would not have been resented. In the period before and just after the 2016 referendum, this resentment became transformed in the mind of many Brexiteers into the fantasy that it would be possible intergovernmentally to negotiate the terms of Brexit with two or three of the largest members in the EU, cutting out entirely the European institutions. This delusion was premised on the erroneous assumption that other large European countries also felt resentful of their smaller fellow member states and were looking for an opportunity to emancipate themselves from the tyrannical grip of the European Commission.
It is true that sometimes France, Germany and other larger member states become impatient with the Commission and smaller member states. But this impatience has only ever been of the most superficial and transient kind. It was a fundamental mistake of British Brexiteers to imagine that they could infect the European Union with their own radical and principled rejection of European solidarity. Even Poland and Hungary, on whom the British government built at one stage considerable hopes as potential allies, were unwilling to do more than give occasional rhetorical support. Particularly at the Salzburg summit in 2018 Theresa May found herself embarrassingly without the expected backing from Viktor Orban.
What did the British want from Brexit?
At the beginning of the Brexit negotiations many continental observers were puzzled by the apparently erratic nature of British diplomacy, which seemed incapable of formulating any coherent set of demands or aspirations for the negotiations. Some commentators even assumed that this vagueness must hide a sophisticated diplomatic strategy, which in due course would be unveiled by the British government. This assumption was flattering, but incorrect.
A number of factors prevented the British government initially (and since) from formulating a robust strategy for its negotiations with the EU. The referendum had been won on the basis of a number of unrealistic and contradictory promises, which could never have been transposed into negotiating reality. If there was a narrow majority for Brexit in 2016, there was no majority for any particular form of Brexit. Some of Brexit’s supporters wanted it to usher in an era of radical deregulation in the UK; some wanted to continue trading with the EU by an EEA-like arrangement; others wanted to reverse European migration into the UK; yet others simply wanted to spend more money on the National Health Service, as they had been promised during the referendum campaign. It would have required an extraordinarily adroit British government to distil such preferences into a consistent and achievable negotiating package.
Long live the Commission!
Even the most diehard Brexiteers in London now recognise that European solidarity has proved over the past years strikingly more effective than the British attempts at division. But there is still a reluctance to recognise in London that the reviled and hated European institutions have played a central role in cementing and co-ordinating the negotiating effectiveness of the EU. A favourite myth, beloved of British Eurosceptics, is that of the arrogant, unrepresentative European Commission, endlessly attempting to impose its centralising will on the member states. Barnier’s behaviour in the negotiations has belied this absurd caricature in every particular. He has been zealous in consulting the member states and ensured that he is their faithful representative. Regular hopes surfacing in the British press that Barnier might be replaced or demoted have always been contradicted by reality. Barnier has given a master class in the fundamental role of the Commission as organiser and facilitator of the collective will of the member states. By signing the European Treaties, member states express their general desire to participate in the process of European integrative solidarity. Barnier has since 2016 reminded us that the European institutions are the best, probably the only vehicle through which concrete realisation can be given to that general desire.
Central to the Brexit proposition was the belief that the United Kingdom could improve its position in the world, including in its relationships with its European neighbours, by leaving the EU. The growing realisation that the reverse is the case has been a traumatic one for the political class of the UK. Before 2016, British Eurosceptics were inclined to speak dismissively of what they saw as the inflated claims of the European Union to internal solidarity; nor was such criticism always wrong in the areas of the euro, migration and the European budget. But the United Kingdom has received from the EU over the past four years a painful lesson in the effectiveness of solidarity, having been comprehensively out-negotiated by a united and well-coordinated European Union, demonstrating its institutional effectiveness. After Brexit, the British state will need to improve its own levels of internal cohesion and solidarity if it is not to avoid the division, and even destruction it had predicted for the European Union.