As the seemingly agreed European-British trade deal approaches ratification, there has been a considerable degree of introspection over quiet glasses of port during the Christmas holiday, in consideration of what it all means. It does seem to be an important moment in the development of the European Union – it is certainly that for the UK – but what does it tell us about the European Project?
The decade from 2008 to 2018 was probably the worst in the history of post-War European integration, from the financial crisis, to the sovereign debt crisis, and (lest we think ‘Brexit’ was anything other than a derivative portmanteau) the risk of ‘Grexit’, the migrant crisis, countless terror attacks, the Brexit vote itself, and Donald Trump’s rejection of internationalism with its tacit approval for Russian aggression on Europe’s eastern borders.
It may be that Ursula von der Leyen is a lucky general, but with the conclusion of the trade negotiations with Britain, the seemingly positive progress towards ratification of the Mercosur trade deal, and the demise of Trump in the US, things are looking up for Europe under her leadership. Even Putin seems to be on the back foot in Turkey, and combined with a botched assassination attempt on his main domestic rival Alexei Navelny, the old master is beginning to look weak again. While the Coronavirus is doubtless challenging, it is a global phenomenon that has forced most power rivals to concentrate more internally than would otherwise be the case, allowing Europe to do the same. In any case, Europe has rarely had the domestic strength and integrity to focus too much on external relations apart from trade.
At the time of the Brexit vote in 2016, things did indeed look challenging. While even Leave supporters in Britain insisted that Single Market membership was not in question, and the general disposition was towards a ‘soft’ Brexit, the mood swiftly turned as Trump’s victory emboldened the disruptors. Merkel’s utopian and perhaps naive welcome to refugees in 2014 was threatening her very premiership as the true horror of the Cologne attacks on New Years Eve 2015/16 was revealed through 2016. In France, ongoing terrorist incidents (notably the 2016 Bastille Day attacks that left dozens dead) piled pressure on President Macron, while wave after wave of migrants attempted to make the journey to Europe across the Mediterranean, many dying along the way.
It all seems such a long time ago. Today, Europe appears to be stronger than ever. There remain challenges – in Hungary and Poland in particular – though no hint of a fracture appeared in the European position in the trade negotiations with the UK. This was not entirely down to self-interest either, at least not directly. Britain found no weakness in those states without fishing concerns, nor was she successful its attempts to charm member states into softening their position. Europe held firm. When Boris Johnson attempted to arrange bilateral talks with France and Germany towards the end of the negotiations, Paris and Berlin each directed London to speak with M. Barnier – three times.
In the end, the UK conceded on each position it held, though the EU didn’t get everything it wanted either – for example, the primacy of the ECJ in the UK has been (mostly) withdrawn. On balance, however, it appears that the strength in the union, combined with the weakness of the British position combined to produce what EU officials must be privately admitting was an outstanding result. The sensitivity of the UK domestic political position forbids any triumphalism on the EU side, and while on the specific area of UK-EU relations it is clear that there were never going to be any winners from the process, it does seem at this early stage that Europe has become stronger for it. Its member states remained in lock step behind the negotiating team; any internal grumbling or disputes remained internal; there was demonstrable strength in solidarity, and an incredible capacity to deliver on diplomatic solutions.
In a sense it’s a double blow to the UK, first getting a poor trade deal with Europe, but also creating a new competitor for itself. While in public the leadership there have talked about the need for positive post-Brexit relations between Europe and a newly ‘global Britain’, Britain has also created a massive new competitor for itself in dealing with the rest of the world. The financial capitals of Europe – Frankfurt, Paris and Dublin – now have the shackles removed when competing with London. ‘Global Britain’, newly independent, must now navigate beyond the populist moment, and attempt to assert itself relative to the US, Russia, China, India and Europe.
Part of the London calculus must have been that Europe would be in fact weaker for the process – it has not turned out that way. There was a time, back in 2017 or thereabouts, when Brexit threatened to derail the entire European project, and there were arguments being made that Europe needed to punish Britain for its decision. The logic went that should Britain not feel any pain, or even benefit from its decision, other countries like Greece, Poland and Hungary might feel like they should leave also. For now at least, that argument has been shut down. It remains a risk, of course; and if Britain does indeed thrive for having left the EU, the project could once again find itself in jeopardy.