Living in the UK, one would think that Brexit must be taking up all the ‘political oxygen’ in this city. But it isn’t. Most of the exit negotiations have been delegated to a (small) task force of the EU Commission with Michel Barnier (former French Foreign Minister) as its head. That way, the UK has been unable to ‘pick off’ sympathetic member states, or those with particularly strong links to the UK, from collective EU positions. Virtually everyone who I have spoken to here thinks that Barnier and his team – led by the formidable Commission official Sabine Weyand (who studied at Cambridge) – has performed remarkably well in difficult circumstances.
Things have changed a bit since the negotiations moved to a ‘2nd phase’ (start of 2018). The first phase focused on the UK’s budget contribution, rights of EU citizens, and Irish/UK border – in other words, the terms of ‘divorce’ – on which agreement was reached in December (although Irish border question was fudged). That was the easy part.
Now we’re into talks on future EU-UK relations, which are much more complicated and contentious. Theresa May is walking a tightrope leading a very divided cabinet that includes strident pro-Leavers such as Boris Johnson as well as Remain backers like Philip Hammond. The EU 27 will have far more difficulty staying united in phase 2 and member states are already deviating from the company line in subtle or not so subtle ways on, say, the City of London, air transport – the company that owns British Airways is registered in Spain – or future trade relations (Ireland obviously wants as little change from status quo as possible).
I met with a senior EU official working on Brexit this morning. The last thing he told me was of Theresa May telling Barnier last year ‘I hope we can count on you to make these negotiations successful’. Barnier apparently responded: ‘we’ll just have to agree to disagree on that’. In other words, the EU can’t offer the UK too good a deal for the simple reason that it wants to do nothing that might tempt other member states to leave.
But the main story here is that Brexit isn’t that big a story. The EU is just getting on with other things on biz as usual basis. They include closer defence cooperation, agreeing a budget for 2021-7 (tough as UK was net contributor), new free trade agreements with Japan and Vietnam (and an upgraded, modernised one with Mexico), cyber-security, a ‘war on plastic’, and so on. Not only do the worker bees just keep working. Brexit – combined with the renewed confidence that comes with economic growth – seems to have energised the EU.
One myth that I’ve exploded during my time here this year is that most EU types are glad that the UK is leaving since it won’t be around to block things as it did in the past (on, say, EU defence). But that’s entirely wrong. Most people here feel sad and even depressed about Brexit. Most British EU officials are – in my experience – very able. Whitehall remains much admired across Europe. And Brexit is a collective EU problem, especially for the more liberal EU states that trade most with the UK.
A lot of people here have asked me: Maybe the UK could change its mind? Could there be a 2nd referendum? Possibly if the current government falls? I tend to agree with my friend Richard Corbett MEP that there are about 10 different scenarios for the UK that all have about a 10% chance of occurring.
But I also think Brexit is a political fact and that reversing it would take a miracle. Dommage.