Future EU-UK relations: Silver linings or rain clouds?

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

Home Secretary, Remain campaigner and front-runner to be next Prime Minister of the UK, Theresa May. [US Embassy London/Flickr]

Now is not the time to get bogged down in what the EU treaties do and do not allow. We need a new vision for Europe that offers members the flexibility they need and can inspire future generations to embrace the European project, writes Tom Parker.

Tom Parker is CEO of Cambre, a public affairs consultancy, and vice-president of the British Chamber of Commerce in Belgium.

With the UK wrestling a spiraling economic, political and constitutional crisis and the leaders of the remaining 27 member states struggling to present a united front after the UK’s vote to leave the EU, rumour and conjecture as to what happens next are rife and the potential for all parties to emerge as losers is great.

Against the backdrop of a growing power struggle on the future direction of Europe between federalist and nation state Europeans, and hostile UK domestic politics, with the Conservative and Labour parties immersed in toxic leadership challenges, three key questions that will chart the future course of the UK and the EU have emerged: When will article 50, the EU exit clause, be triggered? What chance if any is there of the UK vote being reversed? Is it possible to trade off the free movement of people and that of goods and services?

Upcoming elections in the UK, France and Germany could well provide the answer but listening to the rhetoric of some important EU leaders and the different Conservative Party candidates, there currently appears to be little if no room for a reversal of the UK exit: Indeed, if some get their way the UK could begin its merry (or not) path to independence as early as September.

So why is it then that a small but growing number of observers has emerged, whether seasoned commentators on the EU fudge, rational non-believers in Brexit, or nostalgists who can’t accept the prospect of an EU without the UK, who believe (hope) that there must be a EU-UK lifeline to stop the folly of what is currently scheduled to come.

Looking ahead, should we read something into Angela Merkel’s efforts to temper the demand for triggering article 50? Or Theresa May’s, the leading candidate to be the next Conservative leader and thus Prime Minister, position that the trigger would not be pulled until 2017? Or the, perhaps, not unrelated ever louder chorus of demand for Jean Claude Juncker European Commission President to step down?

Time will of course tell but casting forward three broad scenarios exist for us to contemplate:

  1. Article 50 is triggered, a new relationship with the UK outside the EU is negotiated and the EU sets about trying to launch a new momentum for Europe, bedeviled by the contrasting agendas of its member states;
  2. Time is allowed to pass, the UK is made to feel the pain of Brexit and in the end a EU compromise is found, keeping the UK on board a rocky EU ship; or
  3. A new multi-tier vision for Europe is developed that accommodates the needs of all 28 EU member states (yes, still including the UK)  and offers enough flexibility but commonality of purpose to inspire future generations right across Europe to embrace the EU project.

At this time most people’s money is likely to be on scenario one but as an ardent believer both in the EU and in the importance of a strong EU-UK relationship, my hopes are very much on scenario three.

Rather than seeking to navigate a course of troubled waters, the time has come for European leaders to think big and seek out the silver lining in this history defining moment. What is needed now is not more entrenched discussion about more or less Europe but rather a framework that openly and unambiguously accommodates both: Member States that want to integrate further must be able to do so without fear of members, that are either currently part of the Eurozone or on its path, falling out of the inner core at a later stage.

Around this inner core a formal second tier is needed that not only embraces members like the UK, that seek a lighter relationship with Europe but also those that can no longer be part of the inner circle and who undermine the ambition of those that want to go deeper.

As with so many things these days, form is as important as substance and it is critical that a positive vision for differentiated EU membership (potentially with different names) be set out with clarity and with passion. For all the history of the EU and for all its future worth, now is not the time to get bogged down in the detail of what current treaties do and don’t allow.

What we need is an EU vision for our times that unites all EU member states and who knows inspires even more to want to join (yes why not invite Iceland and co. to come on board and make a bigger, stronger EU out of adversity).

Let’s face it, with all its opt outs the UK has effectively been operating at a different EU level for some time. It is time to call a spade more than a spade, be bold, ambitious and show true European leadership.  The founding fathers of the EU may have had a different dream but dreams are what Europe is built on and now is the time for our leaders to dream again.


Subscribe to our newsletters