Daily Telegraph 25-Mar-17
On the wall of the Brexit war room at the European Council in Brussels hangs a mocked-up Tintin book cover, entitled “Tintin and the Brexit Plan”.
It shows the Belgian cub-reporter seated in the stern of a lifeboat while Captain Haddock sits in the bow warming his hands on a fire.
It is an image – which became a meme on Twitter among Remainers back in January – that sums up a view commonly held among the upper echelons of the EU’s diplomatic corps: that Brexit is an act of suicidal self-harm and when the Good Ship UK starts to sink during the Article 50 negotiations, its occupants (urged on by a chastened British electorate) will beg to be rescued before it is too late.
The poster hanging on the wall of the EU Commission
No doubt Article 50 gives the EU control of the process, but this view of Britain’s position in the coming talks as supplicant in the face of an implacable EU adversary overlooks the potential for serious complications on the other side of the table.
After Mrs May hands over her notification letter, the European Council, on whose walls that picture hangs, needs to get the remaining 27 EU members states to agree a negotiating mandate for Michel Barnier over at the European Commission.
Thus far, the EU 27 have remained publicly united, rejecting a British offer to settle the question of expat rights ahead of negotiations last December and rebuffing British attempts to wind up French and German trade groups to push their politicians for a sensible deal.
But as one EU ambassador privately acknowledges, EU unity has held largely because it has been untested. It is not just the UK that has been busy fighting a phony Brexit war these last nine months over the politics of Brexit, the same is true of Europe too.
So when Mrs May triggers Article 50 the Brexit process becomes real – for both sides.
The British will probably have to give up on the idea that sovereignty can be repatriated without trade-offs, but the European side will face tests of its own. These may not become immediately apparent, since UK officials say Mrs May’s letter is likely to be pretty vague and will be met with a correspondingly broad response from the EU side, but when the talks get down to brass tacks, papering over conflicting interests of EU member states will far more difficult.
On free movement and benefits, on competition policy, on how to heal the shortfall in the EU budget after Britain leaves and the future shape of the European Union, they are deeply divided.
You only need to look at the preparations for this weekend’s “Unity” summit to mark the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome – or the fiasco of the Bratislava summit last year – for live illustrations of the difficulties.
“If the EU 27 wishes to remain united, it will have to make compromises internally that will be to the UK’s benefit”
The Poles and Hungarians are seething about political heavy-handedness in Brussels, the Greeks are chafing about German-imposed austerity, the Italians want more help on immigration, the Germans want to avoid paying for everyone else, the rich northern states are no longer unequivocal supporters of Free Movement and the some in the core EU still cling to dreams of a united Europe that are rejected by half the continent.
If the UK side is clever, these divisions are waiting to be exploited as a deal takes shape that will affect the interests of all member states differently – if the EU 27 wishes to remain united, it will have to make compromises internally that will be to the UK’s benefit.
On the question of free movement and social security benefits for EU migrant workers, the British plan to impose a work permit system chimes with the view among some richer member states that (as the Brits have been saying for a while) the principle of Free Movement needs an update for today’s world.
The EU, say officials with long experience of Brussels negotiations, will desperately want to avoid re-opening an internal debate on diluting free movement and reducing benefit payments, and in that diplomatic crevice lies space for a reasonable deal to be done.
British negotiators will need to be deft. An EU diplomatic implosion, where smaller member states start to demand concessions on unrelated issues – immigration, budgets, climate change targets, equal pay for all EU workers – in order to sign up a Franco-German version of Brexit has the potential to backfire.
Too much internecine strife in the EU camp risks causing delays that will run down the two-year clock on the negotiations or cause the scope of the talks to contract to include only the narrowest aspects of the UK-EU ‘divorce’ where the 27 can reach agreement.
British negotiators must be realistic. They must not, as Mr Cameron did with Germany, overplay their hands – but the notion that the coming negotiation will be plain sailing for the European side is a simply wrong
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