Brexit can be the rallying call for a Europe at its lowest ebb

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

Theresa May will not attend the dinner, organised by Donald Tusk. [European Council]

The United Kingdom’s decision to leave the EU has caused its continental partners to close ranks; the unexpected result of the Brexit vote is a rallying point that Europe can use to offset their other differences, writes José Manuel Sanz.

José Manuel Sanz is the international director of EURACTIV’s partner EFE.

European leaders have been meeting over the last two days in Brussels as part of their regular schedule of summits. This edition was UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s first experience of the meet up; she has promised to carry out the British people’s wish to leave the EU, as decided by the 23 June referendum.

Her speech at the Conservative Party conference two weeks ago in Birmingham was met with unanimous rejection across the board; even the UK’s historically or politically sympathetic partners baulked at the direction she outlined.

Most of the European officials and deputies that attended a media event organised by the European Parliament this week, focused on the future of Europe, shared this view.

The general mood in Brussels is quite sombre and the “risk of disintegration” of the EU is very real, acknowledged President of the Parliament Martin Schulz. The German socialist was unequivocal in sharing his thoughts on the matter.

However, Brexit, the greatest exponent of political, economic and social crisis facing the bloc, according to liberal leader Guy Verhofstadt, is at least creating a sense of unity among the other 27 member states.

“Every indication points towards a ‘hard Brexit,” said a senior Parliament source, who also insisted that the EU27 are “more united than ever” as a result.

Although no one wants to start negotiations with Westminster until Theresa May’s government formally triggers Article 50, the rest of Europe has already drawn a line in the sand on one issue: the UK will not maintain access to the lucrative single market nor retain its invaluable financial passporting rights if it does not accept the principle of free movement of workers.

It seems like Brexit is going to consist of two separate parts.

Firstly, the UK is going to have to agree with the bloc on the terms of the divorce: deciding everything from the validity of contracts, payment of existing commitments to the rights of citizens that live on both sides of the Channel.

Secondly, Westminster is going to have to negotiate on its future relations with Brussels, both commercial and political, within the framework of some form of international treaty.

Logic dictates that the EU27 will wait until the first stage is fully dealt with before broaching the second, when the UK is fully out of the bloc. Brussels has already indicated it is not ready to negotiate with a UK that has “one foot in and one foot out”.

The European Parliament, meanwhile, that champion of its citizens’ rights, has made it clear that its endorsement at the end of the process is non-negotiable. It has also urged the divorce to be finalised before the European elections in 2019, as it is totally nonsensical for the UK to participate in a vote that will dictate the make up of a Parliament in which it will not be represented.

“They made a lot of promises that they could not keep. It was worth lying because it doesn’t matter after they won; the media wasn’t willing to dismantle their lies anyway,” said Charles Tannock MEP, who has indicated that he does not feel bound by the result of the 23 June referendum.

The mood among Spanish MEPs that follow the issue is not exactly a jubilant one either. Socialist Juan Fernando López Aguilar lamented the “mutual distrust” that characterises the UK’s situation, adding that it is not an occasion for “further integration”.

For Catalan nationalist Ramón Tremosa, the mood among the continent’s citizens is one that demands “less Europe, not more”.

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