On the night of 23rd June, Europe will have no sleep. For Brexit would, for everyone in Europe, amount to an earthquake. No one would see it as just another decision by any old member country to leave an international organisation. Brexit would be a separation, a divorce, a break-up. If they decided to leave, the British people might feel that they had emancipated themselves from ‘being run by Brussels’. That is for them to decide. But the other Member States, the other people of Europe, who are, at present, up against serious problems, would feel that they had been abandoned. That feeling would doubtless be more heartfelt in a country such as Ireland than elsewhere. But it would be felt, nonetheless.
For the United Kingdom is not just any old one of many European countries, or even a country like the others.
It is a great country, a country that is liked and admired, and a country which has shaped the history of Europe, enriched its culture, and illuminated its political evolution.
It has been a longstanding example to others and which has been looked up to. This remarkable heritage would, in the event of a divorce, be one of the main handicaps Britain would face as it sought to negotiate a new agreement with the European Union. Britain’s magnetism, the sympathy it arouses, are so strong that many will fear that her defection could call in question the commitment of others and even lead to the slow disintegration of the European project. The Member States, the founding members in particular, could show understanding for a Member State whose departure would not change the integral character of Europe as a whole. They cannot, and will not, do the same for Great Britain.
This is all the more so for, in all probability, the remaining Member States will, the moment Britain votes to leave, unite round an early move to strengthen European integration in certain policy areas, especially in the operation of the euro zone. It will take some time for them to turn intention into reality.
The real decision point will come at the end of 2017/ start of 2018 following the Presidential election in France and the General Election in Germany.
And it is a pretty safe bet that decisions will then be taken: decisions which will even more clearly mark the separation of the United Kingdom – a further drifting apart of the continent and Great Britain.
From now until 23rd June, the prospect of a vote to leave is a central concern for the whole of Europe. Should Britain vote to leave then, the day after the referendum, the focus of attention of 27 EU member countries will no longer be on the UK but on themselves, on the EU. And the EU members will do everything in their power to ensure that they suffer as little as possible from Britain’s departure. They will move to strengthen their mutual ties, not least to prevent them being weakened.
Of course, there will be lots of background noise, hopes expressed for the future, warm things said. But sympathy and friendship are not the same as policy. And I am certain that the very fact that Britain is a great country, a beacon for the countries of the continent, will mean that her former partners will do her no special favours in the negotiations on what happens when Britain leaves. There is not a single European leader – German, French, Dutch Italian, Belgian or Spanish – who would want to be held responsible for undermining or otherwise negating the EU project.
So, should the UK vote to leave the European Union, it is against that general background that negotiations will open under Article 50 of the EU Treaty. The negotiations will be conducted with a view to reaching an agreement with the UK in accordance with the procedure that the article lays down. And the Treaty is quite precise about that procedure, while saying relatively little about the substance of what might be agreed. An agreement is about “setting out the arrangements for its [the Member State’s] withdrawal”. The operation will be a long and difficult one and it will certainly be ‘surgical’. After 45 years of living and working together, it will be less like the withdrawal from an international organisation and more akin to the separation of Siamese twins: a separation covering every level of every common activity. And let there be no misunderstanding: the treaty provisions do not allow a Member State to pick and choose what it will and will not keep hold of in the existing treaty arrangements and the rights that derive from them. The core principle is that of the unity and unicity of the EU Treaties. So the negotiation will be about the modalities of leaving and, in parallel, about what form a new relationship between the UK and the EU should take. That agreement will, be negotiated, in the name of the EU, by, on one side, the 27 Member States, represented by the European Commission, and, on the other side, by the UK. The eventual agreement will be decided and adopted by a qualified majority of votes among the 27. The UK has no part whatsoever in that vote.
The terms of the negotiation are pretty clear already. The UK will seek to extricate itself as far as possible from the constraints and disciplines which the British people would have voted against whilst, at the same time, retaining the rights and privileges which it currently enjoys as a Member State, in particular the single market for goods, services and capital. As far as the 27 Member States are concerned, the negotiation would necessarily be based around the following principles:
At the conclusion of the negotiations under Article 50, the UK would be considered a ‘third country’, with all the consequences which flow from that. The EU will not be willing to create a new status for Britain of “former Member State” with special rights, or rights which might be thought of as residual rights of a former Member State or acquired rights of former citizens of the EU;
The provisions applying to the relationship between the EU and the UK should as far as possible be the same as one of the existing models, be it the EEA model (Norway etc.), the Swiss model or those countries which have a customs union with the EU. Without such an agreement, the UK would revert to being a third country with no rights other than those resulting from international treaties or arrangements such as the WTO or the OECD;
There will need to be strict parallelism between the concessions offered to the UK in terms of access to the EU’s internal market and the obligations the UK is prepared to take on in return, especially as regards the applicability of EU law;
Whatever is agreed will have to safeguard the decision-making autonomy of the EU and its institutions, and must respect the general principles laid down in the EU treaty.
These various principles might seem dogmatically intransigent and therefore capable of being softened or even disregarded in a well organised negotiation. Far from it: they represent the essential interests of the EU and its 27 Member States. The first such interest is not to allow the UK to have the status of an “almost Member State” which for various, and often conflicting reasons, might appeal to one or other of the 27 and could therefore undermine the Union itself. By the same token, it will be important not to give the three existing EEA members or other third states of importance to the Union (Switzerland, Turkey for instance) an excuse to try to improve the terms of their own relationship with the EU and to make clear that their existing rights remain conditioned by the existing rules and conditions that apply to their relations with the EU.
The same goes, issue by issue for the detail of the future arrangements.
Why would those Member States which benefit from so called cohesion policies agree that a country like Britain could have semi Member State status without continuing to contribute to the cohesion funding? Why would those counties that are net contributors to the EU budget (Germany, France, Italy, Netherlands, Sweden, Austria etc.) accept, let alone explain to their public opinion, that Britain was no longer paying into the budget but was continuing in some important areas to enjoy a privileged status almost equal to theirs?
It would not be even Europe à la carte, of pick and choose, but a dip in and out Europe,
in other words a negation of what the European Union is all about. And that is something that none of the 27 will accept.
A more superficial analysis sometimes leads to a different conclusion: that the EU, with a surplus in its trade with the UK, would have every reason in its own interest to keep things that way and that the UK would therefore have the upper hand in negotiating favourable terms. That argument carries little weight. Almost a half of the United Kingdom’s exports go to the other 27 Member States of the EU, but the UK market represents only some 10% of their exports. Moreover, more than half of the trade surplus of the 27 is down to two countries only: Netherlands and Germany. Those are the two countries that are often criticised in international organisations (IMF, OECD, and G7) for running large trade surpluses and so might well accept to see those surpluses somewhat reduced.
Finally, no matter how important the commercial argument may be, it will not be the deciding factor in the stance which the EU 27 will take. To grant the UK concessions of the kind that are being talked about would require a new treaty, a new treaty that would not just have to be agreed by all the 27 Member States but ratified by them as well; so we would be talking about doing the realistically impossible.
Some argue that the affection people have for Britain, its intimate knowledge of the ins and outs of EU life, the professionalism of its civil service and of its NGOs – that all these things would enable the UK to continue to influence the policies and decisions of the EU even if the UK were no longer a member. But real world experience suggests otherwise.
There is no half way house between ‘in’ and ‘out’.
For example, the United States is able to exercise considerable influence in Brussels; but that influence is nothing like as great as that exercised by a Member State which is a full participant in the day to day work of the Council of Ministers, the European Parliament and the European Commission. And the ability of smaller and less powerful countries than the US – countries such as Norway, Switzerland, Canada or Turkey, is even more markedly less.
How would the Article 50 negotiations conclude? It is, at this stage, impossible to say. But one thing is written in stone: the Union will be governed by the principles I have described. The most authoritative analysis was made by Jean-Claude Piris, former senior legal counsel to the EU Council of Ministers. What that analysis demonstrates, simply and ineluctably, is that, unless the UK was content to become a third country in every sense, including in respect of the single market, she would have to accept obligations which would be scarcely different from those applying to the UK now as an EU member. But, while the UK would have to accept those obligations, she would play no part, either in principle or in practice, in the decision making of the EU. That is what the application of the texts, the Treaties and EU law would mean. The many exemptions which the UK already enjoys (single currency, Schengen, Justice and Home Affairs), as well as the very significant concessions granted in the renegotiation decisions of 19th February 2016, leave virtually no room for any more concessions without reciprocity.
The road to an eventual outcome will be a long one. The negotiation will take years – many more than the two years (which can be extended) envisaged by the Treaty. Much can happen, both in the UK and in the EU, between the beginning and end of the negotiations which could further complicate the whole process. The negotiations will not be straightforward and they will be difficult. For the Treaty is clear: until such time as the Article 50 negotiations are concluded, the UK remains a Member State of the EU, with all the rights, but also all the obligations, of membership. And during all that time the Union – still a Union of 28 – will be dominated by a negotiation of 27 + 1, in which each negotiating party will be insisting on its rights and defending its interests. It is not scare mongering, but simple realism, to predict that the long period of uncertainty that would begin on the morning of 24th June would be one of endless difficult and frustration.
Those in Britain who want to leave the EU call in question just what this marriage contract has amounted to. They excoriate the Union’s dysfunctionalities, its inertia, what they see as a lack of democratic accountability, the presumptuousness of its institutions – and they are not without a point. But, if Britain votes to leave, the other Europeans will not interpret the outcome as simply an expression of frustration and a determination to change the terms of the contract. They will see it as a decision to part, as a rejection of the reality that is Europe, as a body blow. This feeling will be all the stronger because over the decades the EU has undergone profound changes at the instigation of the UK, often in the face of initial opposition from one or other Member State. To give just one example, namely that of freedom of movement of people, or workers, within the Union. Which country as it which, in the early 2000s, campaigned most vigorously for enlargement of the EU to take in the countries of eastern and central Europe? Which country was the most insistent that the transition periods for these new members should be as short as possible? Which country was it that, at that time, most criticised the timidity and feebleness of other Member States whose Governments were more circumspect? And after all that which is the country which has now done an about turn? Reproach and rancour will weigh heavily on the negotiations over Britain’s future relationship with her erstwhile partners, and those sentiments will be felt on both sides of the negotiating table.
In all this, “democratic choice” will cut both ways. The British will, quite justifiably, interpret the results of the referendum as the manifestation of the will of the British people.
The 27 other member countries in the EU will have to accept that sovereign decision. But, for them, it will be a unilateral decision on the part of the UK. They will feel equally at liberty to take sovereign decisions on what shape they wish to give to a Union reduced in number to 27. And it is more than likely that, during the long years which will be spent negotiating the terms of a future relationship with the UK, decisions will be taken at 27 which could profoundly alter the EU. So the last word in the negotiation laid down under Article 50 will not be uttered on the basis of the EU as it is in 2016 but on the basis of what it will be some years hence. And that makes the negotiation quite unpredictable.
In sum, Brexit would mean a period of years, of unpredictably long duration, in which the United Kingdom on one side, and the 27 other Member States of the EU on the other, would be forced to devote a large portion of their energies to dismantling one relationship and then trying to reshape something out of what they had taken apart; to renegotiating hundreds of agreements, decisions, administrative arrangements. During all those years, the UK would still be a Member State of the EU, but a Member in a state of suspense. The Union would be close to being one of 27 – but not quite. Do the countries of Europe – Great Britain included – not have other priorities, other crises, other challenges to tackle side by side, rather than one against the other? Is there no other vision, no other aspiration to over coming generations than the sour pleasure of one side being able to say “we are no longer with you” and, for the others, the bitter acceptance of the fact that “they have deserted us”? For those 27 who remain the issue will not be whether or not the EU has made mistakes, as it has done.
The issue will be to determine what they need to do to relaunch a more effective Union, a Union at the service of a Europe whose influence in the world is that of reason, tolerance and liberty.
Will the British be together with us as they have been throughout our long shared history? On the continent of Europe, that is what everyone hopes will happen. Maybe that hope is just a dream, but are we not such stuff as dreams are made on?
By Pierre De Boissieu