EU should back off, not chastise

22 January 2019

EU should back off, not chastise

For fully two-and-a-half years a cloud of uncertainty has hung over the approaching Brexit. A hopelessly divided Conservative Party and the inability of the government and opposition to work together have led to over two years of chaotic and extremely contradictory messages regarding Brexit.

By Arnout Hoekstra and Renske Leijten

This political soap opera and the permanent state of crisis which it has produced has made the European Union appear as if it were a beacon of reasonableness. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. To prevent a no deal Brexit, both the British side and the heads of government of the twenty-seven remaining member states must be prepared to budge. A no deal Brexit would be too damaging for peace in Ireland, for the protection of people and for the economy.

It's not only Theresa May who's unable to get an agreement; the EU can't reach one either. It may have looked as if there was unity amongst the other twenty-seven countries, but it's an open secret that the room for compromise was exceeded by a majority which believes that no advantage should accrue to the United Kingdom.

Leaving the European Union must be painful; otherwise other countries would likely have the same idea.

Wholehearted Rejection

This led to a negotiation starting position of “the indivisibility of the internal market”, and thus the disappearance of any possibility of flexibility. This was confirmed by Dutch Prime minister Mark Rutte in a parliamentary debate that took place following French President Immanuel Macron's wholehearted rejection of May's Brexit plan last September.

May's plan could have been the beginning of a compromise, but not according to Rutte, who described the discussion amongst the heads of government regarding the rejection as follows: “You can formulate this then as 'it's a basis on which we can build further', or you can say 'that's never going to happen'. That is inflammatory, of course.”

Brexit goes beyond the desire of the British people to leave the EU. The UK's departure must signal the start of a discussion over what sort of European cooperation we want. Politicians who state that there is no alternative to the 'indivisible internal market' give a misleading picture of the state of affairs. The internal market as a disciplinary institution is leading to a situation in which the Brussels elite - which defends the interests of the multinationals and the banks more effectively than it does those of people, animals or the environment – plays the role of boss in the EU member states. This is hollowing out democracy and means that people do not recognise themselves in the decisions which are taken. This is a major and dangerous breeding ground for nationalism.

Oft-heard excuse

The official council which offers policy advice to the Dutch government concluded an analysis last summer – European Variations - with the observation that support for the European Union had diminished as a result of this dogmatic approach to the internal market. “We have to do it because Brussels says so” is an oft-heard excuse from politicians who prefer to put the interests of banks before those of the human scale, of animal welfare and the environment. This has provoked a great deal of resistance, in Italy, France and many other countries. Acting as if this resistance is populism and not to be taken seriously is an extremely dangerous way of looking at things.

Uniform solution

It's not a question of swallow it, choke on it or spit it out. European cooperation must be possible without there being always a uniform European solution to problems which vary from country to country. Give countries the chance to participate in parts of the internal market. Give countries that want to cooperate more intensively on sections of the internal market the space also to do so.

Nothing stands in the way of variation except political will.

This opinion article was published in Trouw, a national daily, on 21st January 2019.

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