February 13, 2017
Still stumbling towards the exit
Running out of patience with British politicians? In my latest article on all things Brexit (9 February) I explain why the Westminster parliament and parties find themselves split and emasculated – and have only themselves to blame. I have precious little sympathy for those Remainers who voted blithely to promote the referendum in the first place and who now cannot agree among themselves about any prospectus for the UK alternative to the one announced by Theresa May – essentially a basic free trade agreement plus political cooperation on internal and external security matters, dubbed ‘a new partnership’.
But the prime minister certainly also has some more explaining to do, especially on the question of the timing and sequencing of the three different but connected negotiations on which she now has to embark: the Article 50 treaty, the transitional arrangements and the final post-Brexit settlement. She must become much clearer about the nature of the UK’s future customs arrangements with the EU. And she must learn to accept that while the UK can escape the direct jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice it cannot evade its jurisprudence.
Beware the Ides of March
Unless there are unexpected difficulties caused by the House of Lords (unlikely), Mrs May is expected to trigger Article 50 at the meeting of the European Council on 9 March. Then the ball will be firmly in the court of the EU 27 and especially that of the European Council which will have to issue lengthy guidelines to the Commission (the negotiator) as to how to proceed. Despite the difficulties that face the 27 in reaching agreement on the appropriate mandate, the European Council needs to publish its guidelines before the first round of the French presidential election (23 April) if the official negotiations are to get going by mid-June.
At any rate, the European Parliament will have the first crack of the whip in voting its own Brexit resolution probably on 15 March (the same date as the Dutch elections). Guided by Guy Verhofstadt, Parliament’s front man on Brexit, MEPs are hoped to be helpful to the Commission and Council as well as sympathetic to the interests of EU citizens resident in the UK.
I describe in the article how Michel Barnier, on behalf of the Commission, needs to nudge the UK towards a better definition of its future landing zone. Establishing the objective of an Association Agreement would ease the whole process and expedite the successful conclusion of the Article 50 treaty within the allotted two years. If a legal vacuum is to be avoided, moreover, any transitional measures taken by the EU will have to be married up with the UK’s own ‘Great Repeal Bill’.
How does it look from Central Europe?
To Prague, Central Europe’s grandest city, and a major conference at Charles University (9 February). The British ambassador gave an opening speech which seemed to consist of her reading out chunks from the recent government white paper. Don’t try this at home. (The Austrian ambassador said this was the most lucid explanation of Brexit he had yet to hear.)
The Czech minister of Europe, Tomas Prouza, gave a powerful riposte in which he directly challenged Mrs May’s “populism and lies” on the harm done to Britain by mobile workers from Central Europe. The Czechs may regret Brexit, but they will not grieve for it. Prouza sees the UK as a lot less liberal than the British like to make out. He worries about the adverse impact of Brexit on the EU’s budgetary settlement. He also queried Mrs May’s visit to Donald Trump:
“How do you want to ‘reach beyond Europe’ when your plan is to close yourself up and when you are best friends with a man who is basing his new administration on cutting his international ties?”
And clearly puzzled by the tone of the British government’s statements on trade, Prouza warned:
“This splendid isolation game regardless of the real consequences is dangerous. Establishment of both tariff and mainly non-tariff trade barriers may kill existing business ties.”
In an answer to a question from the floor, Mr Prouza argued that the best framework for the future relationship between Britain and Europe would be an Association Agreement.
Having little first-hand knowledge of the EU, other Czech parliamentarians at the conference tended to repeat those eurosceptic arguments that are all too familiar in Westminster: the nationalist rhetoric of ex-President Vaclav Klaus still echoes in Prague.
Elections take place in the Czech Republic this coming October, and the loss of social democrats Prouza and prime minister Bohuslav Sobotka would complicate matters for the EU 27. But grumble as many do about ‘Brussels’, very few Czechs are tempted to follow Britain’s example. As Prouza concluded:
“The Czech Republic is a Member of the European Union and will continue to defend its principles and unity of the integration. We still believe moving forward together is the best available and most efficient option for us. As was once said, no man is an island … except for Britain, of course.”