Brexit is a European problem the EU dodges at its own peril

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.com PLC.

Leave proponent Boris Johnson. [BackBoris2012 Campaign Team/Flickr]

The EU conveniently insists on the UK triggering Article 50 before discussing Britain’s exit from the bloc. This looks more like an excuse for inaction than a strategy for the millions of citizens anxiously waiting for what seems Godot, writes Melanie Sully.

Dr Melanie Sully is a British political scientist and Director of the Vienna Institute for Go-Governance.

Half a year after the referendum on UK membership, little tangible has emerged aside from a series of platitudes, leaked memos and the odd speech.

The EU conveniently insists on the UK triggering Article 50 before discussing anything. This looks more like an excuse for inaction than a strategy for the millions of citizens anxiously waiting for what seems Godot.

But just supposing, for the sake of argument, the referendum vote had gone in favour of staying in the European Union, where would we be now? The EU would have gloated that even the British are pro-Europe. Half a year on we would still be waiting for politicians to hammer out the details of changes in social security rights, restrictions on in-work benefits and child allowances. The European Parliament had threatened to flex its muscles and some would have found the concessions to the UK discriminatory and even against the treaties. Many would have regretted voting Remain, there would be demands for a second referendum and UKIP would be riding high. Citizens would still be waiting for Godot.

And for precisely that reason many voted “Out.” Here was a once in a lifetime chance to leave. Could the EU be trusted to fulfil its promises? Could it work fast enough to have any impact on reducing immigration to the UK? Of course not as we saw in the messy negotiations recently with Canada. In the weeks before the referendum, it was clear Brexit was gaining momentum. But unlike the Scottish referendum, there could be no extra last-minute effort to woo voters. Such moves would have required the approval of all member states. Brexit was a disaster waiting to happen and the EU was a passive observer.

The EU sees Brexit as a British problem. “You voted out so go tout de suite” is the stock phrase. But this is a European problem the EU dodges at its own peril.

The EU’s response to a plea from UK parliamentarians to soften up on discussing rights for EU citizens was, “we assumed that one of the main reasons for the vote for Brexit was the rejection of the free movement of people”. This is a gross simplification and ignores the fact Northern Ireland, Scotland, London as well as other big cities and Gibraltar voted to remain.

The EU blames the UK government’s failure to trigger Article 50 for the current climate of uncertainty. Right now Theresa May cannot do anything until the courts sort out the legal position. Brexit could also drag on if the UK parliament seeks more guidance from the EU before pushing the Article 50 button. The idea that by then the British economy will be so weak, voters will be begging to come back is illusory. The populist post-fact world means that not Brexit will be blamed for the woes of millions but the lack of it. The Brexiters will say, “look a year on we are still in the EU, no wonder we are not free and prosperous”.

The ties between the UK and the Europe did not begin with membership in the EU and do not subside when it leaves. The EU treaty itself with Article 8 opens up a possibility: “The Union shall develop a special relationship with neighbouring countries, aiming to establish an area of prosperity and good neighbourliness, founded on the values of the Union and characterised by close and peaceful relations based on cooperation.” For this, the “Union may conclude specific agreements with the countries concerned. These may contain reciprocal rights and obligations as well as the possibility of undertaking activities jointly.”

For much of the half year since Brexit, the EU has been in denial hiding behind Article 50. It has cited everything that is not possible, reminding the UK of its obligations to pay into the budget, but admonishing it for voicing concerns such as on the proposed European army.

So far Brexit has threatened to be a tragicomedy akin to Samuel Beckett’s play where the key actors reflect:

“Let’s  go.
We can’t.
Why not?
We’re waiting for Godot”.

Not only the UK government, but also the EU has to adjust to the new situation and start a constructive dialogue. Millions of citizens are waiting.

Further Reading

This article is a shortened version of a Policy Brief by Melanie Sully available on the website of the Österreichische Gesellschaft für Europapolitik