Brexit: What to do and where to go now?

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

Brexit is a self-inflicted tragedy, but it is one that the UK will have to now live with. [Lee Davy/Flickr]

Like most tragedies, Brexit is the result of stupid mistakes, often self-inflicted. But the referendum question was put in clear and simple terms, it was actively debated and the democratic answer is clear. Any attempt to reverse it would change the situation from bad to worse, writes Philippe de Schoutheete.

Baron Philippe de Schoutheete was Belgium’s ambassador in Madrid, political director at the Belgian Foreign Ministry and permanent representative to the European Union from 1987 to 1997. He was also special adviser to Commissioner Michel Barnier.

The result will not be the end of Western civilisation, as suggested by President Tusk, but it is a major geopolitical shock. It creates uncertainty and confusion, with a negative impact on world finance and economy. It is a lose-lose situation for all concerned. Yet the time is not for tears and the wringing of hands. Two major questions arise: what to do and where to go? Time will be needed to fully answer them. Perhaps quite a long time! But they need to be addressed now, if confusion is not to spread and if confidence is to be restored.

What to do, in practical terms, is well-known. The UK and the Union need to engage two complex negotiations. One has to organise the departure of a member state.  The other has to rule on future relations between the bloc and the departing member. Both negotiations will be difficult because the stakes are high and there is no precedent.

They will be time consuming. They can be held simultaneously or in succession. But they operate differently. The exit negotiation implies a qualified majority in the Council, and approval by the European Parliament. The negotiation on future relations implies unanimity in the Council, approval in the Parliament and approval by the member states in accordance with their respective constitutional requirements. The hurdle is higher and the time lag is longer.

No negotiation can come to a fruitful end if there is not a minimum level of mutual respect and understanding, a will to compromise and to come to an agreed conclusion. Those commodities were remarkably absent in the British referendum. The debate was ferocious, even by British political standards.

The universality of the English language, the importance of the issue, extravagant statements, even politically motivated murder, guaranteed a large audience on the continent. Scorn and contempt were poured on European institutions, foreigners in general and immigrants in particular.

Naturally enough, the recipients feel some irritation. It is compounded, in the European political establishment, by the prospect of endless complications all due to David Cameron’s initial decision to call a referendum.  The talk is about retaliation and reprisal.

European institutions, who will be meeting in the next few days, should do the utmost to change that atmosphere. Referendums do not change geography and history. Recriminations and regrets are useless. Triumphalism or spite are toxic.

Now, as before, we need rational debate on mutual interests. We must have a working relationship as friends seeking common solutions, confident that they will succeed. The essential point, as always, is to plan the future. This means engaging, as swiftly and smoothly as possible, a successful negotiation respecting the interests, claims and idiosyncrasies of all participants.

That will imply some imagination and flexibility from the European Union, including possible treaty change. It will imply Britain facing the lasting consequences of its decision. Both partners must respect their respective rights and obligations under European law, until such time as the separation is pronounced. It is a real challenge but not a street fight!

Where to go? To stay put and keep quiet does not seem to be an option. Leaders must give a sense of purpose: not necessarily about methods, certainly not about institutions, but about shared objectives.

I see four:

  • A sound and stable money, which implies strengthening the Eurozone;
  • Secure external borders: adapting Schengen, including an operational common border guard;
  • More security against terrorist activities: more cooperation, more intelligence, if needed more external action;
  • More mutual concern about inequalities and unemployment.

Their objectives are not original. To some degree they are already on the way. But they do address fundamental concerns in public opinion. They are common goods, which would be desirable even if the EU did not exist. But the Union can help procuring them.

There are always good reasons to postpone decisions, even proposals. Up to now we were told that we should not frighten British voters. Now it will be said that nothing can be done before German and French elections. I do not believe that.

We are not talking about treaty negotiation. We are talking about stating publicly a quiet determination of a number of member states to move forward on shared objectives in a given time framework. Leaders must give hope and a sense of direction. It is not asking too much.

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