The authoritative source for independent research on UK-EU relations

29 Jan 2018

A Changing EU

Relationship with the EU

In a previous blog, Forget transition, extend the Article 50 period instead, we made the case for extending the Article 50 negotiating period. ‘Transition’ is a one-way street out of the EU, before the details of the proposed future relationship between the EU would be known. It offers no possibility of turning back.

By contrast during an extended negotiating period Britain would still be a full member of the EU, albeit with some limitations. It would retain the right to remain in the EU, should the British public and Parliament choose to do so.

In this blog we now want to argue why extending Article 50 would also be in the interests of the other EU member states.

The EU27 would prefer Britain in the EU rather than outside. President Macron, Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker have all made this perfectly clear. Nevertheless, they are disinclined to interfere in an essentially British decision. But as, Timothy Garton Ash has argued, the EU27 should and could become more pro-active by, for example, making some concessions to British concerns and/or proposing themselves an extension to Article 50 – especially if this would permit or encourage a change of heart on the British side.

Their reasons for preferring Britain to be ‘in’ rather than ‘out’ are essentially political, even emotional; trade considerations play very little role among the EU27 considerations. Britain has always made the mistake of seeing the EU as just an economic project.

For the other member states, however, it is primarily a political project – the most ambitious and most successful attempt so far to overcome a long history of warfare and to bring different peoples and nations together in mutual cooperation sharing democratic liberal values.

Like all human endeavours the EU is imperfect, but over the last sixty years it has succeeded remarkably in its original purpose.

On the substance of the matter, we can identify five particular themes.

First, some member states, notably the Scandinavian states and Holland, support the relatively liberal market-oriented economic policies which Britain has successfully championed within the EU and are opposed to the federalist inclinations of other member states.

They do not wish to lose the UK’s influence in steering policy in the EU. Again the British public is largely unaware of Britain’s huge role hitherto in shaping the EU.

Second, many member states, including we would argue Germany itself, are wary of Germany’s political and economic dominance within the EU. That Britain, together with France has, hitherto, acted as a counterweight to any risk of German hegemony is widely appreciated.

Third, some member states, particularly those in eastern and southern Europe, benefit from the net contribution that Britain has always made to the EU budget. In 2016/17 from the UK point of view this amounted to less than a half of one percent of GDP.

Fourth, Britain has been an attractive place for EU citizens, especially from east and central European countries, to come to for work and study, which has generated significant remittances to those countries. Although migration remains an important issue in British politics, there are considerable mutual benefits from EU citizens filling gaps in the UK labour market.

Fifth, are security and military issues, including counter-terrorism. The EU is not a military alliance and Britain has always been against proposals for a European army. There has nonetheless always been close military cooperation between Britain and France, the only significant military powers within the EU. Lord Ricketts has recently argued that it will be more difficult to maintain such cooperation with Britain outside the EU.

The Baltic States and Poland would like to keep Britain close as it contributes to NATO’s multinational defensive battlegroups to counter Russian assertiveness. More widely, Britain’s historically strong foreign policy profile, including a permanent seat on the Security Council of the United Nations, has strengthened the EU’s voice in foreign affairs.

Finally there is the special case of Ireland. Nowhere has the EU ideal of bringing peoples together been more visibly successful than on the island of Ireland. The long, delicate negotiations that eventually led to the Good Friday agreement and the present harmony and cooperation that exists between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, would never have succeeded had both countries not been fellow members of the EU.

Despite the carefully phrased, ambiguous assurances concerning the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland that were agreed during the Phase 1 negotiations of Britain’s withdrawal from the EU, there remains a huge risk of these all unravelling as the negotiations proceed and eventually of a hard border reappearing within the island.

The Irish people and the Irish government feel badly let down, not to say angry, by Brexit Britain and by the cavalier attitude of the British government towards Ireland. Yet no country has a greater interest in seeing Britain remain in the EU nor a greater incentive to work towards this end.

Certainly objections will be offered to extending Article 50. On the EU side there will be the European Parliament elections in June 2019, the new EU budgetary cycle beginning in 2021, and the nature and limitations on Britain’s involvement in EU discussions and decisions while also negotiating its departure.

On the British side there would be an expectation of being able to negotiate, though not sign, new trading relationships during this extended period. But with goodwill on both side these difficulties could be readily overcome.

In summary, the EU27 could, if they chose to do so, significantly enhance the probability of Britain remaining within the EU, as they generally prefer. This could be achieved by the simple expedient of extending Article 50 and giving the British people more time to climb out of the hole into which they have dug themselves.

By John Speed and Stephen McCarthy, former officials of respectively the European Court of Auditors and the European Investment Bank.


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