What can Brussels do to avoid Brexit?

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

Fabian Zuleeg [EPC]

Clear but invisible lines of communication between London and Brussels, and a pragmatic and opportunistic approach are required if Brexit is to be avoided, according to Fabian Zuleeg.

Zuleeg is the chief executive of Brussels-based think tank the European Policy Centre.

An in-out referendum on EU membership in the UK is now a virtual certainty. Promised to come before 2017, there are growing signs that it could already take place in 2016, in order to steer well clear of crucial German and French elections.

The outcome of the referendum is far from certain. While current opinion polls indicate a significant majority in favour of staying in, much will depend on leadership, momentum and a range of other factors, including the popularity of the UK government, the depth of the euro crisis and the divisions within the Conservative Party, among others. Much of the debate will be domestic, where ‘European’ voices might actually be counterproductive, prompting a negative reaction from the British electorate.

But for those who want to keep the UK inside the EU, which is still the vast majority of decision-makers in Brussels, there is something that can, and should, be done now: to support a process by which the British government, as well as some key groups within the UK, such as business, can argue that the electorate will vote on staying in a reformed EU. This increases the chances of success – polls show strongest support for staying in a reformed EU – and, conversely, a botched reform negotiation could provide ammunition to those who believe the UK should leave.

But this reform process has to work for both sides, not least because any reform will require the support from the 27 other member states and the EU institutions. This means striking a tricky balance: reforms should be significant enough to look like real successes while, at the same time, not opening large divisions and debate at EU level (e.g. major treaty changes).

All this has to work in a very short timeframe if reforms need to be agreed by 2016.

To reach a successful outcome, there are five principles which should be kept at the forefront of negotiations:

  • Clear (but not visible) lines of communication between London and Brussels. Brussels must understand what the key reforms are which London feels it needs, while Brussels must make it clear what its red lines are, avoiding impossible demands (e.g. quotas for EU citizens).
  • A consistent shared communication strategy, to ensure that reforms are ‘sold’ equally in the UK and elsewhere.
  • A reform agenda for the benefit of all, not of a single member state.
  • A negotiation process involving the institutions but at the same time being driven politically by the countries with the greatest influence on the UK, for example, Germany.
  • Pragmatism and opportunism, using existing developments at EU level to frame them in these reform agenda negotiations. Examples are the further development of the Single Market, trade agreements and, crucially, the Better Regulation agenda.

As argued before, the EU needs a much wider debate on its model of differentiated integration and the direction of the whole integration process. But by following these simple principles, there is a better chance that the UK will still be part of this debate when it finally comes.

Think Tanks

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