January 29, 2018
In fourteen months time the European Union treaties will cease to apply to the United Kingdom. This event will bring to an end almost half a century of Britain’s unquiet membership of the continental bloc. Britain will have rejected the closer unity to which the EU is committed, marking a signal failure for Europe as a whole. We will all live with the consequences of this reverse for many years to come.
I have written a book about what the EU set out to be and why it has failed in its mission. On Governing Europe: a federal experiment is not yet another book about Brexit. It takes a longer perspective — from J.S. Mill to George Smiley — than the relatively brief interlude of British membership. I argue that the governance of the EU has been an unhappy marriage between confederal, intergovernmental methods and federal, supranational institutions. While each successive treaty change has strengthened the powers both of the European Parliament and of the European Council, it is the Commission, in the middle, that has been deprived of the executive powers it needed to develop into a capable democratic government of the new polity.
Reading the book, I am surprised by how often the British problem raises its head. The UK has been, for good and ill, the most powerful influence on the constitutional shape taken by the EU. In the closing chapter I warn that Brexit does not mean the end of Europe’s British problem; nor will it stop the British from obsessing about what happens on the mainland. The manner of the UK’s departure, therefore, matters a lot.
On Governing Europe can conveniently be bought here, in print and on Kindle. I hope you enjoy it. There’ll be a Brussels book launch in a week or two.
The manner of their leaving
Meanwhile, back in the real world, the Brexit process continues. I’ve written regularly for the European Policy Centre and Policy Network as the Article 50 talks have continued. The latest event (today) is that the Council have agreed to the new negotiating directives that will take us forward to the next phase.
In essence the orientation of the EU 27 has not altered a jot since David Cameron left his last meeting of the European Council in disgrace on 29 June 2016. Faced with Brexit, the EU continues to protect its interests and to maintain its rather remarkable cohesion. The only surprise is that the UK government has been unable to articulate a serious prospectus for its future relationship with the EU. In spite of various offers by the EU to engage in discussions on issues relating to the governance of the transition period, the UK has not responded in kind. And no request has been forthcoming from London for the negotiation of a comprehensive association agreement covering trade, customs, security and foreign policy.
Instead, the British political class (including the media) has descended into bitter argument about options for the future bearing little relation to the reality, or seriousness of the situation in which the UK finds itself. British ignorance and prejudice about European integration, long suspected, has been well exposed. The British constitution, which before the referendum used to be parliamentary, appears to be crumbling. Britain’s standing in world affairs, which used to be proud, has been shattered. Its civil service seems demoralised and compromised. Its ruling Conservative party is inept, divided and increasingly corrupt; its Labour opposition offers no alternative sense of purpose.
It falls, then, to the EU institutions, left without a credible negotiating partner, to fill in some of the blanks. The new negotiating directives are tougher in tone than they would have been had the UK government been more capable and constructive. With no attempt to conceal impatience, the EU calls on the British to agree “clear and unambiguous legal terms” for the orderly withdrawal. Arrangements for the transition “must be clearly defined and precisely limited in time”, as well as subject to “effective enforcement mechanisms”. During the transition the UK will be subject to all the obligations and disciplines of full membership of the Union while losing its right to direct representation in the EU institutions. The EU also demands urgent “further clarity” about the British position on the framework for the future relationship before the European Council meeting scheduled for 22-23 March.
If you don’t ask, you won’t get
Unless the British government shapes up, the texts that will be agreed in the autumn by the European Council and Parliament will serve only the interests of the remaining EU. There is still time, just, for the UK to rescue the situation. With the risk of boring regular readers, here are my recommendations as to what the Prime Minister should now do:
- accept and flesh out the Commission’s proposal to establish a joint transition authority to manage Brexit;
- insist that the transition period should be extendable on a proposal of the Commission, a unanimous decision of the Council and the consent of the European Parliament;
- ask for the negotiation of a “deep and special” association agreement, as the European Parliament has proposed, covering all aspects of the future relationship;
- initiate, even during the transition, a long-term partnership with the EU in the areas of security, defence and foreign policy and the fight against terrorism and international crime;
- propose the establishment of a joint UK-EU court as an integral part of the institutional structure of the association agreement.
If she fails to do this, and face down the far right in the process, Theresa May will deservedly follow Cameron into oblivion.Andrew Duff