As the European institutions get back to work, most of the talk in Brussels surrounds how the new Romanian presidency of the Council will fare in wrapping up a lot of unfinished business before the European Elections in May. Tongues are also wagging as to the political complexion of the next European Commission, which is expected to begin its mandate in December this year.
To the extent to which non-Brit officials in Brussels still discuss Brexit, their incredulity it seems to me, stems from the fact that they see the UK taking such a huge strategic gamble based on so little understanding of the long, hard and winding process to come. Living in Brussels and working on EU legislation these last few years, I have often been struck by how little the political debate in the UK seems to relate to my day-to-day understanding of how the EU works.
Nothing illustrates this better than references in the UK media to “The EU says” or “The EU wants”, or “Brussels says”. Nobody in Brussels would ever speak like this; for the simple reason that the EU is so multifaceted that it is impossible – especially at the outset – to discern a single EU line. Interests and opinions between member states, between political groups and within and between the institutions vary hugely. What I think most UK commentators tend to mean when they say the “the EU wants” is the European Commission, but I have often seen the descriptor appended to the personal views of single MEPs, often from smaller political groups like the Greens.
If Brexit does go ahead on the 29th of March, the UK public and media will soon find out that the high degree of consensus between the 27 EU member states on the dry technicalities of the Withdrawal Agreement is unlikely to hold once the UK is out and discussions turn to the future trading relationship. It will be a “blind Brexit”.
The joint political declaration appended to the legal text of the negotiated Withdrawal Agreement is little more than a goodwill statement. But if the Brits are serious about securing access to the Single Market for goods, they will have to begin negotiations with, essentially 27 other countries after March, each of which will have a veto, as will the new European Parliament. What happens to the £100 billion or so worth of services the UK sells to EU countries every year is anyone’s guess. Services are not usually included in trade deals and “passporting” is due to end.
To give a flavour of how long it generally takes to go from vague political statements to fully-fledged regulations and directives, published in the Official Journal of the European Union, the legislation I have been working on, called the Clean Energy for All Europeans Package, first received its “political declaration” from Heads of Government in the European Council in October 2014. It is not yet complete. The EU-Canada Trade deal (CETA) took around eight years to negotiate and ratify and was held up for several months at the 11th hour by the Walloon Parliament in Belgium, one of Belgium’s three regional parliaments, all of which can block the ratification of an EU trade treaty.
So, if Brexit goes ahead on the 29th March the UK will be taking a leap into the dark. For non-Brits, this is an unprecedented political and economic experiment on a huge scale. It still gives me the shivers.