It’s been a while since Britons decided to leave the EU, but the lies, the misconceptions and the half-truths that were common during the pre-referendum are still pretty much in fashion among British politicians. Listening to the news while driving to work, I wonder nearly every morning whether these politicians are completely ignorant about the EU, whether they are completely deluded about the position of Britain in the world, or whether they think that the British electorate is stupid1. Of course, for Boris Johnson2, the answer is known for a long time. But for the others? It seems that the UK government think that they have no one to negotiate with, that every “proposal” they’ll put on the table during the Brexit negotiations will be enthusiastically accepted by their european counterparts, who seem, from a British point of view, to have no interests, no agenda of their own. The positions of the other European leaders are not even acknowledged. Granted, the EU is in a sorry state and the UK, by preventing its deepening and by favouring an Union of states —so loose it cannot even be called a confederation— over an Union of people, does have a great responsibility in that. The politicians from the other countries are not without blame, too, as they pander to their public opinions and use the EU as a convenient scapegoat for policies that their countries agreed to or favour the interests of their countries over EU construction and solidarity.
Still, some news for the British politicians: the UK is no longer a super power. It’s at best a middle-sized power, with very little influence on the world without its allies. It’s the same for other European countries such as France or Germany.
When the EU will get its act together (if it does at all), it’s obvious who will be the stronger party in the negotiations. If the UK is really keen to retain access to a market of around 450 million people (compared to the UK 65 million), it will have to compromise. The alternative is a “hard Brexit”. I don’t think that any politician who really cares about the British population
is willing to take that risk3.
But given the level of the political discourse on the part of the Leavers, I wouldn’t hold my breath.
On the other side of the rift, there seem to be serious wishful thinking about the Lisbon Treaty and the provisions of the now famous article 50. Liberal democrats are divided on the issue of a second referendum, but they all seem to forget one thing: once the article 50 is invoked, nowhere is it said within it that the process can be halted, let alone reversed4. It is hard, therefore, to think that a second referendum on the terms of the Brexit is meaningful —the first referendum result notwithstanding. The only option is to reapply to EU membership under the article 49 (reading this article, Britain will have a lot harder time to get back in on the special deals it enjoyed so far). Furthermore, the article 50 stipulates that:
That agreement shall be negotiated in accordance with Article 218(3) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.
This article is about relationships between the EU and third countries. This means that while Britain will still be a member of the EU for at least two years after the article 50 being invoked; for all intent and purposes of the exit negotiations, the it will be treated as a third party. This is logic as the negotiations will encompass the relationships between the UK and the EU immediately after Brexit, but it also sets the type of negotiations.
It’s high time that people get back to their senses and that the ones who put the UK in this mess own it and tell the truth to the UK population, as George Osborne suggested: the UK will not be the strongest party in this negociation, and that if it wants to retain unrestricted access to the EU markets, it will have to accept the conditions set out by the EU. At the same time, the Lib Dems should stop the wishful thinking and accept that, once the article 50 process is triggered, there is no way back. The correct position for them should be to support as soft a Brexit as possible and not have any fantasies about a second referendum. It is not in the interests of the EU to play nice with the UK and it doesn’t have to if it doesn’t want to. It is now a great time for the EU members to redefine what the EU means and what they want to do going forward.
1 Admittedly, the result of the referendum supports that latter hypothesis to some extent.↩
2 In a fascinating move, Johnson assured Turkey that the UK would support its membership bid to join the EU… I wonder whether the irony is lost on him or not… There is a French saying that would apply to him: “Les cons, ça ose tout. C’est même à ça qu’on les reconnaît”.↩