Last week Boris Johnson, the Foreign Secretary, gave a speech on Brexit, the first of what is scheduled to be a succession of speeches from government ministers as they set out the UK’s position on leaving the EU. But what is the position in Europe? And have the Brexit negotiations really started?
Most commentators interpreted Boris Johnson’s speech as an olive branch to the Remain faction within his own party, as he urged both sides to unite with Brexit negotiations and “get on and do it.”
His message for business was equally simple – they should see Brexit as an opportunity, not a threat, and think “not of EU standards but of global ones.”
Johnson’s speech was praised by his supporters – Johnson is a Tigger amongst Eeyores and right to restate the positive uplifting vision of Britain – and roundly criticised by his opponents as ‘all fluff and no facts.’
In fairness, the last point is a good one. The UK voted to leave the EU on 23rd June 2016: we are now closer to the date of leaving (March 29th next year) than we are to the vote. During the last 20 months I have written any number of articles on Brexit but – like the rest of the British public – I really have no idea what the UK’s preferred negotiating position is.
Will this series of speeches clarify that? I very much doubt it: the speeches are likely to be coded signals about the internal squabbles of the Government as much as they will be firm indications of what the UK really wants to achieve in the negotiations.
But the argument now is not if we leave the EU, but what shape the ‘divorce’ will take – and what our continuing relationship will be after March 2019. So let us try and cut through the words and simplify the issues…
Will the UK stay in the Single Market after March 29th next year?
First things first: what exactly is the Single Market? Put simply, the aim of the single market is to make it as easy to trade between London and Lisbon as it is to trade between London and Liverpool. Single market rules require the free movement between countries of goods, people, capital and services – the so-called ‘four freedoms.’
It may be that the UK stays in the Single Market – and/or the EU customs union – during the transition period after we leave the EU. Long-term, it seems doubtful if we can remain in either, as the whole point of Brexit is to have complete freedom to negotiate trade deals around the world – although as recently as last October our exports to the EU were continuing to rise.
Speaking to Andrew Marr on Sunday, Guy Verhofstadt, the EU parliament’s representative in the Brexit negotiations, seemed to suggest that this was the only possible solution – that the UK could not expect to do a ‘Canadian’ deal with the EU, with bespoke arrangements in every area.
Is Europe united on Brexit?
It is sometimes suggested that the UK Government does not know what it wants, that Theresa May needs to show leadership, and only then will we make any progress in the Brexit negotiations.
The problem is that Europe is also hopelessly divided. Verhofstadt has his views: as one commentator wrote, he is the man with 28 wives. The first wife has asked for a divorce: naturally, he will do everything possible to prevent that from happening.
But there is also chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier: President of the European Council, Donald Tusk: Jean-Claude Juncker is the President of the European Commission. You do wonder how many presidents one organisation needs – and that is before we get on to the elected politicians…
What’s happening in Europe right now?
‘Confusion’ is probably the simplest word to describe the current political situation in Europe. Following last year’s federal elections in Germany Angela Merkel has finally (after nearly six months) tied up a deal with the Social Democrats, led by Martin Schulz. This is the Martin Schulz who in December of last year tweeted a message that must have had Brexiteers muttering, ‘told you so…’
I want a new constitutional treaty to establish the United States of Europe. A Europe that is no threat to its member states, but a beneficial addition
I want a new constitutional treaty to establish the United States of Europe. A Europe that is no threat to its member states, but a beneficial addition.
— Martin Schulz (@MartinSchulz) December 7, 2017
The deal has not gone down well with many in Merkel’s own Christian Democrat party, who see her as simply doing whatever it takes to hold on to power. Germany may well drift to the centre, meaning that the biggest beneficiary from this arrangement will be the right wing party Alternative fur Deutschland who – thanks to their 94 seats in the Bundestag – will now become the official opposition to Merkel’s coalition.
With Emmanuel Macron in France adding another centrist voice, does that automatically mean Europe will move to even closer integration? Possibly not.
While the French economy is currently doing well. Macron will have long-term problems to deal with. France is losing exports – not just to new competitors like China, but also to other countries in Europe. In 2000 France accounted for 17% of the EU’s total exports: last year it was just 13%. Despite the reforms of the Francois Hollande (Macron’s predecessor) French labour costs are still too high. At some point Macron will need to tackle this – and his entente cordiale with the French people may disappear very quickly.
Watch out for Eastern Europe
Our news coverage of Europe largely centres on France and Germany – but there are some significant developments in Eastern Europe, which could ultimately impact both the Brexit negotiations and the EU itself.
There were recently elections in the Czech Republic which saw anti-mass migration Eurosceptic Milos Zeman re-elected as President. He won on a platform of fierce opposition to radical Islam and opposition to the EU’s migrant quotas. A referendum on the Czech Republic’s continuing membership of the EU is by no means impossible.
That opposition is echoed in Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orban flatly rejects the EU’s stated intention of sharing out migrants among member states. Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland together form the Visegrad Group: at various times over the past 20 months, it has been suggested that they will veto any Brexit deal for their own interests – or that they will decide those interests are best served by tacitly supporting the UK.
What is certain is that Europe is very far from the cohesive bloc that its negotiators seek to portray. In many ways, the negotiations have not even started. While the headlines in the UK centre on political wrangling and the Irish border question, virtually every country in Europe has its own agenda.
It may be that the eventual shape of the Brexit negotiations is influenced far more by the actions of the Eastern European countries than it is by either the words of European politicians or the speeches of Boris ‘Tigger’ Johnson…