Eoin Drea is senior research officer at the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies and a research fellow at Trinity College, Dublin.
In Europe, it’s common knowledge that the United Kingdom is falling apart.
Perhaps it was former Prime Minister Theresa May’s excruciating speech at the Tory Party Conference in 2017, where the falling stage dressing seemed to sum up Britain’s future after Brexit. Or maybe it was all of those late nights of voting in Westminster, where nobody could agree on any type of Brexit, or all that chatter about whether Prime Minister Boris Johnson would go to jail for ignoring legislation that would avoid a no-deal Brexit.
On this side of the Channel, these events have been consumed with a Meghan-and-Harry type fascination. Britain, viewed from the Continent, looks to be on a slow and steady decline, losing itself further and further down the Brexit rabbit hole. Europeans like to mock Brexiteer mantras such as “taking back control” and glibly assume Brexit will bring about economic contraction, social unrest, an independent Scotland and even (God forbid) a united Ireland.
Britain will be well positioned to carve out a global niche as a good location for business — irrespective of its future trading relationship with the EU.
But Europe’s view of Brexit Britain has been biased by Westminster’s political weakness over the past few years. What the parliamentary turmoil has obscured is the fact that Britain, true to its slogans and despite its Brexit stumbles, will all but certainly emerge from the Brexit process able to pursue its global ambitions.
As a flexible, innovative, culturally open and highly deregulated (by Continental standards) society, Britain will be well positioned to carve out a global niche as a good location for business — irrespective of its future trading relationship with the EU.
And contrary to much Continental derision, Britain has both the financial means and the governance ability to successful reinvent itself as a global trading powerhouse. To a large extent, it already performs this role within the EU. With manageable debt and a very low ratio of public spending relative to its economy, Britain is well placed to dramatically increase public investment — as both the Conservatives and Labour are promising to do — to help offset the chaos of Brexit’s painful birth.
Brussels’ underestimation of Britain’s abilities to adapt and succeed outside of the EU has also been its fatal flaw in Brexit negotiations since 2016.
The EU’s narrow, legalistic focus on protecting the single market at all costs is based on a misunderstanding of the British economy. It assumes that Britain — based on all the obvious economic costs — will ultimately seek the closest possible trading relationship with the EU in order to preserve its existing trade with Europe.
There’s no reason to believe that’s true.
The EU’s approach is also inconsistent with the realities of how the single market actually operates. Rather than being a monolithic “in or out” deal, the single market is a much more complex mesh of legislative actions and political compromise. A level playing field? Sometimes, sometimes not. Just ask the Bulgarian truck drivers about France’s attempts to hobble the free movement of services and labor. Or the more than 1 million workers from Central and Eastern Europe who made Britain, Ireland and Sweden their home after accession in 2004 owing to restrictions on labor mobility imposed by every other member state.
Europe’s misconception that Brexit Britain is doomed, as a “second rate player” in the words of European Council President Donald Tusk, further underscores the EU’s real weakness in the forthcoming EU-U.K. trade negotiations. By misreading (and dismissing) the globalist nature of the Brexiteer vision, the EU has over-leveraged the importance of its single market and overestimated its negotiating strength with a Britain broken free from the bloc’s constraints.
Britain is far from the weaker party in the forthcoming trade negotiations with Brussels. Rather, it is the EU that has the most to lose by allowing Johnson to pursue his globalist vision of the hardest Brexit possible.
For Johnson, the EU’s likely negotiating stance is a bluffer’s dream. Faced with an EU sticking doggedly to a “no cherry-picking” approach to the single market, Johnson can claim his globalist vision as the obvious remedy to Brussels technocratic and protectionist quagmire. In the end, the EU’s approach will have achieved nothing more than facilitating a reverse takeover of the British government by Johnson’s wannabe cartel of public school boys.
What the EU needs is a healthy dose of political pragmatism.
It’s not yet too late for Europe to regain the initiative. But to do so, it will have to make a fundamental shift ahead of the next stage of negotiations. Britain, let’s not forget, will remain the fifth biggest economy in the world after Brexit and has a land border with the EU. Brussels’ strict devotion to the deity of the single market will do nothing to tackle British economic rivalry in the future, nor protect the cohesiveness of the 27 remaining EU countries.
What the EU needs is a healthy dose of political pragmatism. It should realize that it only stands to benefit from an approach that keeps its future competitor closely smothered in its warm embrace.
This would demand a more selective approach to future British involvement in the single market and an acknowledgment that Britain — as our nearest neighbor and a former member — cannot be treated like any other third party.
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The EU should support the concept of a relationship with London based on shared political, economic and security interests. Such an arrangement — a bespoke Anglo-Continental compact — would allow Europe to benefit from core British strengths (it could, for example, allow the City of London access to elements of the single market) while blending Britain’s wider aspirations with continental Europe’s desire for a more strategic global role. After all, hasn’t Europe just embarked on its first “geopolitical” Commission?
As any Irish person will tell you — or indeed, as many failed French, Spanish and German historical leaders have learned — the greatest risk in dealing with Britain is underestimating its resolve and ability to adapt in times of crisis.
The EU is committing the same blunder.