THE vexed question of Britain’s exit from the European Union, or Brexit, is all-consuming, the stuff of daily leaks, denials, political proclamations and banner headlines in the nation’s newspapers, tabloid and otherwise.
Things are much calmer on the other side of the channel, where for the EU, already looking beyond Britain to other challenges, Brexit is a second or third order issue.
“For Britain, it’s a question of head and heart, but for us, it’s become a much smaller question,” said Margrethe Vestager, the EU’s commissioner for competition.
The EU has huge issues bearing down: shoring up the euro currency; handling Greek debt; coping with the challenge to democratic values in countries like Poland and Hungary; and, terrorism, security, migration and borders.
With those matters in mind, Vestager said they leave Brexit to their chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, while “we concentrate on the EU 27”, the bloc minus Britain. “We think about how it will be a different Europe. It changes the debate.”
There is “sadness”, but Brexit is a “sovereign national decision”, and “we have no desire to punish Britain or teach it a lesson”, she said on the margins of the Ambrosetti Forum in Italy, a gathering last weekend of senior European officials. “We want a good future relationship.”
Vestager is from Denmark, one of Britain’s usual allies in the EU. But, British efforts to lobby countries like Denmark, the Netherlands and Poland separately about Brexit negotiations have been sharply rebuffed, senior EU officials said.
Barnier, a former French minister and European commissioner, emphasised at the forum that maintaining EU solidarity was paramount in Brexit talks. The terms of Britain’s exit, or the “divorce”, which is so preoccupying the British, were secondary.
“The future of Europe is far more important than Brexit,” he said. “It’s a serious issue, but should not be on our leaders’ radar screens all the time.”
Like many European leaders, Barnier bemoaned Britain’s apparently intractable confusion about what it wants from Brexit. He put that down to the fact that the consequences of leaving the single market and customs union had “important consequences that perhaps were not explained well to the British people”.
Britain cannot, he said in so many words, have its cake and eat it, as its foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, famously and ill-advisedly said a year ago. That is to say relations with a Britain outside the bloc “could never be better than with a member state”.
The bloc, Barnier said, “will be intransigent on the single market and the four freedoms”, which include the right to work and travel freely within the EU, “and a third country cannot imagine we will destabilise or make more fragile our own model” in any deal.
“So, there is something pedagogical in our approach,” he said, a remark that infuriated the British news media, which saw it, probably accurately, as patronising, adding to the ugly tone of much of the public discussion of Brexit.
Barnier later commented on Twitter, somewhat unconvincingly, that he meant his remark generally: “I said: #Brexit = occasion to explain single market benefits in all countries, including my own. We do not want to ‘educate’ or ‘teach lessons’.”
Still, there is no question that significant differences remain on crucial early issues. Foremost among them are Britain’s exit bill, which Brussels insists should include British contributions to the 2014 to 2020 budget that it already agreed to, even after it formally leaves; how to manage a new EU border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic; and, how to define and adjudicate the rights of some 3.2 million EU citizens living in Britain (and the approximately 1.2 million Britons living in the bloc) after Brexit.
The hope is that there will be substantial agreement on these issues before the EU summit in mid-October, but most officials expect no serious decisions to be made until after the German elections on Sept 24.
But the British position remains in flux, to put it kindly. An early draft of a British government position paper, published by The Guardian on Wednesday, typically caused a furore. The paper would end “rights-based, unconditional free movement” after a 2019 Brexit and make it more difficult for low-skilled EU workers to settle in Britain and harder for those already there to bring in family members.
The paper was quickly dismissed by the government, saying it was just a policy paper and had not been approved by any ministers.
The chief British negotiator, David Davis, told British legislators on Tuesday that the two sides still had “significant differences” and “very different legal stances” over Britain’s financial settlement. He insisted to legislators that Britain’s negotiating stance was “substantially more flexible and pragmatic than that of the EU”, and said he “urged the EU to be more imaginative and flexible in its approach”.
Barnier and the Europeans have rejected British efforts to tie future trading relationships into the discussions about the divorce bill, the Irish border and citizens’ rights, despite British insistence that the border cannot be discussed in isolation.
At the same time, Britain’s opposition Labour Party, which has been full of contradictions itself on Brexit, now says it wants to leave, but remain inside the single market and the customs union for a lengthy transition period, which is essentially the stance of some members of the Conservative government like Philip Hammond, the chancellor of the Exchequer.
The Europeans consider Britain’s position greatly complicated by internal squabbling in the Conservative Party. Prime Minister Theresa May is supposed to provide more clarity in a speech later this month, but part of the British confusion stems from the lack of clarity about what Brexit actually means in terms of a future relationship with the rest of Europe, and that is far from resolved.
Steven Erlanger is London bureau chief for the ‘New York Times’. He has been bureau chief in various capitals of Europe, Russia, the Middle East and Southeast Asia.