In or out – it doesn’t much matter.
Whether the UK is in or out of the EU, one thing remains constant: Britain will be more successful economically, diplomatically and in terms of security, if Europe – the continent not just the EU – remains prosperous and politically stable. A failing Europe helps neither the EU countries nor Britain and the other non-EU European countries. Similarly, a prosperous and successful United Kingdom serves Europe’s self-interest just as much as it serves Britain. All of this holds irrespective of the trade deals and other agreements the UK manages to strike with any other part of the globe.
Yet, a destructive narrative is gaining a foothold on both sides of the Channel. The British extremists seem to have given up on Europe. They believe in its inevitable decline and are setting their sights on broader horizons. In some parts of continental Europe, leaders are more focused on punishing the UK for its rejection of the EU project than on pursuing what is best for their own citizens and their own economy. The cutting off your nose to spite your face emotional reaction that is so common, and so understandable, among every jilted lover.
What does this mean for viable approaches to the Brexit negotiations?
One of the things that have characterised British engagement with Europe over the past decades is its semi-detachment. Having given up on the idea that the EU is in any way reformable, British diplomacy (if one can call it that) has focused on getting special deals for Britain rather than on crafting approaches that could be applied right across the block to benefit everyone. Paradoxically, Brexit may well offer the opportunity to reverse that trend.
Whichever way we slice it and however much spin is attempted, Brexit represents a seismic shock to the whole European project. Many are arguing that it highlights the imperative for European reform. Yet Britain is failing to take advantage of that mood. Mrs May’s government is retreating into the same old ‘we’ll fight our corner and the hell with the rest of you’ mentality that is hardly the best basis on which to base the inevitable give and take of a complex negotiation. Pro-EU forces in Britain seem more concerned with continuing the doom-and-gloom ‘Project Fear’ narrative that failed so spectacularly during the referendum campaign. It’s the old adage that one keeps banging one’s head against the wall and expecting it to stop hurting.
A better approach would be for Britain to approach the negotiation in the spirit of finding ways in which both Britain and the EU can reform themselves and adopt new paths for the benefit of the whole continent. For instance, there have long been calls among some in the EU, the Netherlands being one of them, for the introduction of an emergency brake on intra-EU migration. Lichtenstein already has it in place and countries like Switzerland would welcome it. For Britain it would solve one of the central issues – uncontrolled freedom of movement.
Would it not be better for Britain to form a coalition of interests to argue for such changes for all rather than to keep taking the British exceptionalism route and only focus on us against them?
Brexit may well represent one of the greatest opportunities available for improving future prospects for both Britain and the rest of Europe. It would be criminal if British and European governments fluffed it. And it would be the height of irresponsibility if opposition parties were to keep focusing on the project fear approach rather than on finding constructive ways forward for the benefit of all. At the end of the day, prosperity and security for Britain and other European countries will rise and fall in tandem whether Britain is in or out and irrespective of how much governments on both sides of the Channel want to pretend otherwise.