Europe’s British question: how will the EU’s big powers play the next phase?

The union jack is removed from the European Council in Brussels. Photograph: Olivier Hoslet/Pool/EPA
The union jack is removed from the European Council in Brussels. Photograph: Olivier Hoslet/Pool/EPA

Berlin: The political class is divided on how harsh to be

The German government is bracing itself for tough negotiations. Berlin sees the UK’s decision to put a 31 December time limit on the process as a tactical manoeuvre by Boris Johnson, calculated to step up the pressure on the EU towards the end of 2020. Germany holds the EU presidency until the end of December and will have to oversee negotiations on the next EU budget, which will involve juggling increasingly difficult demands. It will also be the last major test for Chancellor Angela Merkel, coming shortly before she leaves office in 2021.

According to officials, a bare-bones EU-UK trade agreement that obviates only the introduction of customs duties and import quotas is fully negotiable within this time. If the agreement touches only on areas the EU has sole responsibility for, it will be quickly ratified. Greater difficulties arise in what are known as “mixed” agreements, where member states themselves also retain power. Here, national or even regional parliaments must agree, and ratification can take at least two years.

The German government no longer expects agreement on the “level playing field” provisions (outlawing competition by undercutting EU standards). London is unlikely to automatically submit to EU rules. Still, Berlin is determined not to allow EU environmental protection standards, social policies or data protection to be undermined.

For that reason a new legal idea is being examined, one that would allow for a close UK connection with the single market. This, however, would involve an enormous amount of bureaucracy for British industry. What is at issue here is the so-called principle of equivalence. The EU can decree that the regulations applied by a non-EU state have equal value to those applying under community law. Once this is established, the EU can grant free access to the single market.

This principle is already used in the implementation of EU law by the member states. States must not treat EU law as inferior to national law, and must prove it. Applied to the UK post-Brexit, this would mean that the British side is responsible for the proper implementation of EU rules, and would have to provide evidence they have done so. Should they fail, there would be a price to pay in terms of market access or tariffs.

However, German politics is divided on how harshly the UK should be treated. Given the scale of the UK’s economic interdependence with the EU, the German government expects quick solutions in areas such as research, science, education, security and military cooperation. At the same time, it doesn’t want to make Brexit a model for others – there must be clear advantages to EU membership, or so it is argued.

Germany is eagerly awaiting a more detailed British negotiating mandate – Johnson’s speech in Greenwich this week didn’t amount to one. Will he maintain his generally unpredictable political style or take his lead from the domestic UK political mood? The German chancellor is said to still have great sympathy with the British, but she has not forgotten how Johnson treated her on the way to his election victory last year.

Stefan Kornelius writes for Süddeutsche Zeitung.

Madrid: Looming on the horizon is Gibraltar

Spain knows the road ahead won’t be easy. The levels of bilateral economic interdependence, both trading and financial, are intense. Both nations have hundreds of thousands of citizens working and living in each other’s territories. Tourism – some 19 million British tourists visit Spain every year, where they spend about €13.3bn – fishing, agriculture and aviation are all big sectors. And of course, looming large is the Rock of Gibraltar, the British colony that Spain aspires, some day, to recover.

Spain is Britain’s second biggest trading partner in the EU and the most popular for British people who move to live in continental Europe. There are currently about 370,000 British residents, and not all of them are retired. Half are under the age of 59. The UK is also the top residential destination for Spaniards: almost 200,000 of them have made their home in Britain.

The UK withdrawal agreement seems to have shielded the rights of these people, including their professional qualifications, pensions and health coverage, but many questions remain around labour and mobility rights. “Spain will be very forceful in protecting these rights,” says its foreign affairs ministry. Spain, as a new net contributor to the EU, will have more power to flex its muscles on this point in the coming year.

From now, however, everything depends on how the UK plays its cards. Madrid is willing to make the agreement as broad as possible, but if London insists on diverging from EU rules – for instance, by making it difficult for people to move back and forth, undercutting regulations and detaching from the internal market – Spain will stand firm with Michel Barnier’s position. And if that happens, the British will find it very difficult to move, sell their services and do business on the continent.

Gibraltar is, perhaps, the most emotional issue for both sides. The governments are currently finalising an agreement to prevent Gibraltar from becoming a tax haven. “This agreement will be final,” say Spanish diplomatic sources. It will be added to four memorandums covering the environment, tobacco prices - to deter smuggling – police cooperation and workers’ rights. The goal is for the current situation to change as little as possible. Some 8,000 Spaniards work in Gibraltar and some 200 trucks cross the frontier every day. Spain won’t necessarily use the EU negotiations with Britain to improve its negotiating position on Gibraltar, but it aspires to a shared sovereignty that could begin with joint management of the airport.

Yet the challenge is enormous, and Madrid worries that a nationalist and populist political agenda in London could jeopardise the chances of a positive outcome.

Xavier Mas de Xaxàs writes for La Vanguardia.

Paris: Macron won’t allow anything that helps Le Pen

Far from having any sense of schadenfreude, the French view the UK’s departure from the EU with sadness, convinced, as Michel Barnier says, that this is a lose-lose situation: bad for the UK and bad for the rest of Europe, just when it needs to be strong in an unstable world.

Yet a certain sense of relief is tangible on this side of the Channel: the Brexit saga went on for too long, monopolising the EU’s time for three and a half years when there were so many other urgent matters to deal with. It had to be resolved.

Now the situation is just a little bit clearer. Serious talks can finally begin: we can start to discuss the future. Everyone in Paris, as in Brussels, feels that negotiations on the future relationship are likely to be heated, especially as the UK seems to want to take advantage of quitting to free itself of EU rules and standards. For the EU, there is simply no question of accepting that regulatory divergence can be a prelude to social, environmental or fiscal “dumping” by Britain. As Barnier says: “The access British goods have to the single market will be proportional to Britain’s commitments,” adding, “zero tariffs, zero quotas and zero dumping.”

The French would like the future relationship to be as close as possible, while at the same time leaving the UK in no doubt that being a “third” (or non-EU) country is always less advantageous than being a fully paid-up member. In Paris, there are fears that a successful Brexit will be seized on by French Eurosceptics, starting with Marine Le Pen – something that would augur badly for Macron in the presidential election in 2022. This is an argument against rushing the negotiations, even if it means rejecting the timetable that Boris Johnson seeks with his self-imposed deadline of 31 December 2020.

At this point, given the inability of Johnson’s team to provide the rest of Europe with much precision on what he wants the UK to look like once Brexit is “done”, the French can only speculate. Paris will seek to revive bilateral ties not covered by the trade agreement. In defence and security in particular, the French believe they can maintain strong links with the UK. This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Lancaster House defence treaties, and neither side’s military has any desire to part company with the other.

There is a precedent for such cooperation in the European Intervention Initiative, launched two years ago by Macron as the precursor to a rapid intervention force. Anticipating Brexit, and anxious not to let France’s best military partner in Europe drift away, he made sure Britain was involved from the start in a collaboration that was European but outside the EU. Deep down, the French expect that, with the help of global disorder and Donald Trump, the UK will quickly realise that its interest is to remain in the EU’s orbit.

Sylvie Kauffmann and Philippe Ricard write for Le Monde.

Rome: Cutting Britain adrift totally won’t help anyone

The Italian strategy on Brexit has three pillars: the rights of 600,000 Italian citizens living in the UK, protecting trade, and security and defence cooperation. Over the next 11 months of negotiations on the future relationship, Rome doesn’t intend to budge from these priorities.

However, Italy will seek to advance its interests, according to sources in the foreign ministry, while avoiding “predatory attitudes”. “Every country has its own interests to safeguard or reinforce,” says Marco Peronaci, Italy’s Brexit special envoy. “For example: Paris wants to secure fishing rights; for Luxembourg, it is finance; the Netherlands, logistics.” The thinking in diplomatic circles is that if a predatory attitude were to prevail among the 27 – one of “sharing out the spoils” – it would lead to trouble. Italy wants to keep things in balance. Peronaci emphasises that cutting London adrift wouldn’t help anybody.

Trade between Italy and the UK in 2018 was worth €44.5bn, according to the Department for International Trade. Italy exported goods and services worth €24.8bn (up 4.3% on 2017), and imported UK goods to the value of €19.7bn (an increase of 2.4% on 2017). Italy was the UK’s ninth biggest trading partner globally in 2018, a position that Rome plans to defend, if not improve. So doing the least possible to disrupt the current state of affairs is of fundamental interest. “What we want,” diplomats say, “is a balanced agreement: zero dumping, and import and export quotas stripped to the bone.” Business activities and credit facilities, conditions for the roughly 1,000 Italian companies based in the UK, financial channels and Milan stock exchange’s membership of the London Stock Exchange Group must not be interrupted, not now and not after the negotiations – which won’t be easy.

“From the outset we’ve been using the English expression ‘level playing field’, precisely to avoid misunderstandings,” says one of the politicians closest to the trade negotiations. And while Italy might have been happier with a longer negotiation on the future relationship, it is resigned to the 31 December end date: “We’ll see to it that this timeframe is used to its best advantage.”

Immediately after the Brexit referendum in 2016, Italy set up an ad-hoc taskforce, coordinated by the prime minister’s office. One source laments the EU’s lack of “cunning” in its dealings with Theresa May. “Winning the negotiations doesn’t always mean you end up with the best possible situation,” he says. This is a reference to the Northern Ireland backstop and, above all, the customs union, contained in the deal negotiated by May but defeated three times in Westminster. “Now with Johnson’s agreement we’re starting out with a more complicated situation, at least for the Italians, who want to see our interests represented in a relationship with London that’s very like the one we have at present.”

As to security, both internal and external, existing cooperation mechanisms are plainly going to be lost. So it’s important, both for Italy and the other EU countries, that similar mechanisms replace them. One intelligence officer says that keeping channels open for the exchange of data and information – on terrorism and security policies, for instance – is crucial. Italy (and Europe) can’t do without London in this respect, and, for as long as the UK is part of the so-called Five Eyes intelligence alliance, finding a way of relating to this structure in new and advantageous ways is seen in Rome as the definitive challenge.

Francesca Sforza and Alberto Simoni write for La Stampa.

London: It’s frictionless trade versus full political sovereignty

Britain knows it has taken a leap in the dark by ending its 47-year relationship with the EU. The divorce took more than three years, but Boris Johnson has given his negotiating team only 11 months to forge an enduring new settlement.

Already there have been wobbles in the British cabinet about the extent to which it wants the UK economy to diverge from the European model.

Johnson has never truly revealed his brand of Euroscepticism. In order to secure the withdrawal agreement, he largely accepted the form of Northern Ireland backstop first offered by Brussels. But that episode only revealed his pragmatic determination to achieve Brexit.

He played to the Eurosceptic gallery to win the leadership of the Conservative party. But is he prepared to inflict the economic shock to the UK of a looser trading relationship with Europe in pursuit of maximum political sovereignty? He has a large Commons majority, but there are constraints. His new cadre of “blue wall” MPs in England’s Midlands and northern regions will see their constituents suffer most if barriers to trade are erected in 2021.

The more barriers start to rise, the more onerous the border checks will be on goods crossing the Irish Sea from Britain into Northern Ireland. The more Northern Ireland looks damaged by Brexit, the louder will be the demands for Scottish independence. Business, agriculture and manufacturing will raise the alarm at the sight of European markets disappearing behind a wall of tariffs. The risk then becomes that Brexit looks like a project for English south.

For the first few months of this year, before the talks start in earnest in late spring, Johnson will be able to avoid hard choices. But at some point he will have to acknowledge that frictionless trade and full political sovereignty are incompatible. Downing Street believes its diplomatic cards will produce compromise. Brussels will not want a deregulated behemoth on its doorstep. The collective discipline the EU showed in the first round of talks may be tested. The UK also believes that Germany and France, needing British defence assets, want to cooperate with the UK on defence. On foreign policy the EU 3 group, deployed in policymaking over Iran and Libya, makes Britain a necessary partner for Europe.

UK officials believe national capitals will be more assertive this year – especially if, for instance, central European states, locked in difficult EU budget talks, feel France is being too tough. Moreover, the threat of other countries going down the Brexit route has diminished. The EU’s very survival is no longer at stake, especially if Johnson does not play the role of disruptor that Trump might like. The Foreign Office thinks that France, for wider issues of security, will in any case want to cooperate.

Britain may not share Emmanuel Macron’s exasperation with Nato or American isolationism, and it would greatly alarm Poland – Britain’s greatest ally in the EU – if it did. But Macron’s call for a stronger EU defence pillar gives the UK an entry point into the discussion on future European defence.

Patrick Wintour is diplomatic editor for the Guardian.

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