Is Merkel Rushing to Push Britain Out of Europe?
What European leaders must do to give UK a chance for reason to prevail post-Brexit.
August 23, 2016
“Brexit means Brexit” – is the slogan of the new British Prime Minister, Theresa May. She returns from a holiday of walking in the Swiss Alps to face the policy nightmare bequeathed to her by her predecessor David Cameron.
If the new British leader bothered to change any money at Zurich’s Kloten Airport, she would have found that the British Pound is on track to have the same value as the euro.
That is how far and how fast the English currency has lost value since the Brexit vote.
Meanwhile, the other principal woman leader in Europe, Angela Merkel, has set off on a sequence of meetings with EU leaders ahead of a full gathering of all EU heads of government – minus Britain’s Mrs. May – in Bratislava on September 16th.
Mrs. Merkel has acknowledged that she considers the outcome of the Brexit vote “irrevocable.”
That statement, certainly made out of respect for British democracy, should not mean that nothing could change in the interpretation of the vote over the next months and years.
Don’t create a self-fulfilling inevitability
What Merkel and other EU leaders should avoid at any cost is to create a self-fulfilling inevitability that is not justified.
When Mrs. Merkel and her fellow EU leaders meet, they have a crucial decision to make. Do they hurry to push Britain out of the UK on the assumption that the plebiscite vote, in which 63% of the British electorate did not vote for Brexit, was and is the last word?
Or do they leave some time for the British to realize that the successful Brexit campaign was built on a bunch of demagogue-ish 1930s type of populist lies — like the claim that 75 million Turks were about to join the EU and would arrive in England?
Or the lie that the UK could keep access to the EU Single Market and that Brits would be able to live and work freely in Europe, even as London introduced controls to stop Europeans living and working in Britain.
No question, those lies, perpetrated by Boris Johnson and others, did win the plebiscite. But it is also fair to say that most English voters that were pro-Brexit have not yet had a chance to comprehend fully the economic consequences of losing unfettered access to the EU’s single market of 500 million middle class consumers.
Against Britain’s very own interests
With the summer vacation behind her, the stark new reality is dawning in Downing Street.
As Mrs. May has discovered to her dismay, there was never any work completed by the Brexit ideologues on what the costs of leaving the EU would be – and on how precisely the grandiose sounding task would be accomplished in the trenches of real-world politics.
Thankfully, no one in Europe wants to “punish” Britain. By the same token, no EU leader is prepared to grant the UK a special privileged status that would be denied to his or her own citizens.
The new Mayor of London, the British Muslim Labour politician Sadiq Khan has sensibly said that there is no point in beginning the initial withdrawal negotiations – the so-called “Article 50 procedure” – until there is clarity on who will be in charge of Europe after the elections in France and Germany next year.
Khan, a shrewd EU watcher, is right to say that inserting a rushed UK withdrawal into a crucial election year in both France and Germany is not smart.
He also has to speak for London and the $120 trillion volume of business in trading and clearing euros, which only takes place in London because of EU membership.
London is home to 350,000 French citizens alone, as well as hundreds of thousands other European professionals. Removing their right to live and work freely in the UK will send a disastrous signal around the world that London is no longer Europe’s hub for financial transactions.
No easy time lines for the Brits
There are two stages to Britain fully leaving the EU. Under the EU Treaty’s Article 50, a member state that wants to leave has to announce its intention.
After the announcement has been made, there are two years of technical talks on such details as to who pays the pensions of the British officials who will be dismissed and what happens to the European Medicines Agency or the European Banking Authority — both located in London.
The next stage commences once Article 50 talks are over. Jean-Claude Piris, the EU’s former chief lawyer reckoned it will take at least eight years to iron out any kind of satisfactory UK-EU deal on trade access and the rights of British citizens living in Europe.
Pascal Lamy, the former WTO director general and EU Commissioner also dismissed the idea that a final EU-UK trade deal is achievable without years of negotiation.
It has taken the EU and Canada eight years to agree to a relatively modest trade deal that now has to be ratified by all 28 EU national parliaments.
Bit by bit, the extent of the Brexit lies is now coming home to the British public. This does not invalidate the plebiscite but robs it of any moral authority to be the unchangeable voice of the nation.
Merkel’s special responsibility
Of all people, a German leader should know that a plebiscite vote based overwhelmingly on lies is not the same as parliamentary democracy. And that such a spur-of-the-moment decision can be disastrous for a nation’s future.
In legal terms, the Brexit vote was advisory or consultative – not a diktat. A majority of Conservative and Labour MPs are opposed to Brexit. At some stage, the British parliament must have its say.
As the British body politic ambles its way toward coming to its collective sense, there should be no pressure from Mrs. Merkel or any European leader for a hasty rush for Brexit or to start negotiations. Exerting such pressure can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The French dream on
Some EU federal integrationists, mainly in France, think that pushing Britain out as fast as possible will speed up agreement on a major transfer of powers from national capitals to Brussels. Even if that were desirable, it won’t happen post-Brexit.
Why? Because of budgetary realities. A hasty removal of the UK from the EU would lead to a massive drop in EU budget income, given that Britain is the second-biggest net contributor to the EU budget.
That realization alone should bring the French dreamers to their senses.
The work that lies ahead
The most important contribution Mrs. Merkel and other EU leaders can make in the next weeks is to explain in polite but clear and unambiguous terms, the consequences for the British economy and for the City of London of having no more access to the Single Market.
It simply means no possibility of euro trades in the City of London and the introduction of a visa and work permit regime for Brits in Europe (as well as for French, German and other EU citizens working in London).
In short, in stark contrast to the promises of the Brexit advocates, no “special” deal for a “special” country will be on the table.
Theresa May is no europhile, but she does not want to lead a Britain that becomes poorer and weaker in wealth and status, with the ever-present shadow of Scotland leaving the UK happening under her premiership.
Mrs. Merkel and other EU leaders should recall the watchword of François Mitterrand – give time a chance. A plebiscite has taken place. But the UK has still not left the EU. With patient but clear leadership from EU leaders, it may not yet happen.
Post-brexit, Britain needs a pathway to acknowledge the failure of its ill-advised spur-of-the-moment ways.
63% of the British electorate did NOT vote for Brexit.
The Brexit campaign was built on a bunch of demagogue-ish 1930s type of populist lies.
Brexit ideologues never provided any information on the costs of leaving the EU.
No one in EU wants to “punish” UK. Similarly, no EU leader will grant UK privileged status.
The Brexit vote was advisory – not a diktat. A majority of Tory & Labour MPs oppose it.
A hasty removal of the UK from EU would lead to a massive drop in EU budget income.