Will inflexibility on Brexit undermine the EU?

Will inflexibility on Brexit undermine the EU?

The UK’s current struggles over Brexit have greatly increased the likelihood of a hard exit from the EU, an outcome no one wants. The EU has adamantly refused to renegotiate any part of the Brexit agreement, which seems likely to hurt the EU’s legitimacy in the long term.

The overwhelming defeat of the British government’s withdrawal agreement on the floor of the House of Commons was the latest in a series of difficult setbacks that have frustrated this Brexit process to date. Immediately after the results were known, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn tabled a motion of no confidence which was duly debated and voted on the following day. As expected, the government won the support of all Conservative MPs and the ten votes supplied by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), thus ensuring that Prime Minister Theresa May’s government would remain in power.

The result of the no confidence bid was razor thin, but the universal support the government received from the Conservatives and the DUP demonstrated that, despite a paralyzing degree of tension between them, the parties still stand behind the government, and it is difficult to envision a scenario in which that would change.

Hope remains for a Brexit deal

During the discussions that followed, May indicated she would now proceed by opening dialogue with representatives from each of the other parties in Parliament in order to build a broader consensus on the most effective way to deliver Brexit.

This should be a welcome development for opposition parties because, until now, they have been almost entirely excluded from the negotiation process. It is still too early to predict the outcome of inter-party discussions—and, indeed, Corbyn has already expressed his unwillingness to engage at all with the government at this late stage—but if Parliament can form a more coordinated position that commands the support of a majority of the House of Commons, it is possible that it will be a strong enough mandate to return to the European Union (EU) and convince it to reopen negotiations over the final withdrawal agreement.

All sides agree in principle that a no-deal Brexit is undesirable. Economists predict that it will cause recession in the United Kingdom (UK) and at least some degree of damage to the countries with which it shares strong economic ties—namely Ireland, the Netherlands, France, and Belgium. In economic terms alone, the EU has a genuine interest in maintaining a close relationship with the UK, and one of its top priorities over the previous two years was to ensure that it did not crash out of the bloc.

Future political implications in the EU

Perhaps more importantly, Brexit also has important political implications because it provides the blueprint for other governments/parties seeking to leave the EU. Eurosceptic groups across the continent are watching these developments closely because it allows them to gauge the EU’s bargaining position and determine how they might expect to be treated if they pursue the same route. This is well understood by officials in Brussels, and for that reason, it was important for them to demonstrate unequivocally the consequences of choosing to leave the union. In this regard, a no-deal Brexit serves EU interests wonderfully because the disastrous impact it is likely to have on the British economy would, they hope, discourage other populations from doing the same.

It does appear, however, that the EU is ignoring arguably its most persistent and fundamental threat—the challenge to its democratic legitimacy. Even supporters of the union agree that its jurisdiction has extended far beyond its original remit, and that its democratic institutions have not kept up with its administrative growth. They argue not that this should necessarily be condemned or even ridiculed, but that the bloc should undergo a degree of institutional reform in order to strengthen the relationship between the people and the institutions that represent them.

The detractors recognize the flaws, but they contend that the EU has no interest in serving its populations and will continue to marginalize its member states until it controls virtually every aspect of European affairs. In their view, the existence of a democratic deficit demands not institutional reform, but a dramatic transferal of power from Brussels back to national capitals and, in its more extreme manifestations, the abolition of the bloc entirely.

EU intransigence risks illegitimacy

The EU’s present unwillingness to renegotiate the UK’s withdrawal terms might serve short-term interests, but it will be harmful in the long-term because it reinforces the populist narrative of an unmoving and unfeeling bureaucracy which serves only itself and the interests of the elite. Even if the outcome is a no-deal Brexit (which is, as mentioned, meant to demonstrate the foolhardiness of leaving the union), it is likely to embolden Eurosceptic parties across the continent who will almost certainly exploit the political capital it offers by framing Brexit as evidence of the EU’s disregard for the interests of national populations. This is especially likely to be effective in the upcoming European Parliament elections in May, which Italian deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini has already billed “a referendum between the Europe of the elites, of banks, of finance, of immigration, and precarious work” against “the Europe of people and labor.”

For those reasons, it is in the EU’s long-term interests to engage with a better coordinated British position (if one emerges) and renegotiate the terms of the withdrawal agreement. But while several European leaders are willing to clarify parts of the agreement in order to assist the British government’s effort to sell it to Parliament, they are adamant that they will not renegotiate, meaning the only options available for the UK (barring a second referendum or staying in the EU entirely) are the present withdrawal agreement and a no-deal Brexit. In the short-term this will almost certainly have the predicted disastrous economic impact on the UK (in addition to periphery EU member states), but in the long-term it will demonstrate Brussels’ inflexibility in dealing with its member states which is not only likely to harden Eurosceptics’ more extreme demands, but also amplify the present surge of populism which is a far more enduring threat to the EU’s long-term stability.

Categories: Europe, Politics

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