The opportunity of ruptured nuptials

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

UK Prime Minister Theresa May met European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker on 26 April in London. [Number 10 / Flickr]

While the UK was an EU member, its partners had to humour its peccadillos and mood swings. Now that it’s not, they can look forward to a new, more free future, writes Tom Parker.

Tom Parker is chief executive of Cambre Associates, a Brussels-based consultancy, and vice president of the British Chamber of Commerce in Belgium.

If the speed and resolve of the adoption of the EU27 Brexit negotiations guidelines on Saturday took some in the UK government by surprise, it really shouldn’t have. The determination underpinning the EU27 position has been palpable for weeks (if not months).

Unfortunately, Westminster has been so obsessed with its mantra of “Brexit is Brexit – Go Find the Opportunity” that not only has it not been listening but it has failed to realise that there are two sides to the “Opportunity” story.

For the EU27 Brexit also means Brexit, but the opportunity for the remaining members is, rather than cry over spilled milk, to build a better and stronger EU.

Whitehall would be well advised to heed some of its own wisdom: understand that Brexit is a genuine divorce, and like with many broken marriages, the moment of separation often serves as a moment of liberation.

While the UK was an EU member, its partners had to humour its peccadillos and mood swings. Now that it’s not, with a dizzy sense of freedom they can, unshackled from the burden of its cantankerous former partner, look forward to a new, freer future.

A number of important hurdles lie ahead, not least the imminent second round of France’s presidential poll. But barring a Le Pen victory, post Germany’s autumn election, the momentum towards building a brighter EU future will be top of EU minds, not the detail of the Brexit divorce.

Echoing the voice of European leaders at the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome last month, and subject to a Macron victory in France, the prospect of a multi-speed Europe is (with some irony for the UK) likely to emerge.

For it to succeed, learning lessons from the past and pragmatically addressing what does not or is seen not to work now, the Franco-German motor of years gone by needs to find a new gear.

In order to do this, France must address its stagnant growth and labour market problems. Germany meanwhile needs to focus on making sure that its powerful economy is open and a source of growth to all EU members.

It should practice what it preaches and truly support the EU single market, addressing the obstacles to foreign companies setting up shop in its most prosperous regions and stopping using the European standardisation process to protect its products and industries from outside competition.

More broadly, EU leaders should reflect carefully on whether “multi-speed” is the right narrative upon which to build Europe’s future. After all, the EU today is already multi-speed, and for European voters who will long hold the future of the EU in their hands after the 2017 election minefield, it is likely to be too complicated.

While multi-speed will allow the EU to do its Brussels deals, the EU needs a simpler, stronger story (probably with a new institutional framework that sets out clearly the different levels of European integration) to compel and inspire the next generation of pro-Europeans.

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