Self-obsessed Brexiters would be shocked to realise just what a peripheral issue their sacred cause is, viewed from a European lens.
It is official: Brexit is boring – at least on the continent. As the European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, delivered his “state of the union” address on Wednesday, setting the tone for the new political year, Brexit was relegated to a brief mention at the end. And even there, it was framed as a moment of sadness and regret, not horror. In last week’s TV encounter between the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and her challenger, Martin Schulz, Brexit was totally absent.
The European press is increasingly uninterested as well. Checking the online home pages of four leading European newspapers on 12 September (FAZ, Le Monde, El País, and Corriere della Sera), there were only five stories about Brexit. The shock and fear are ebbing away. Nowadays continental papers talk about Brexit only to give factual updates or express bemusement at the apparent confusion on the UK side.
Contrast this with the UK press. On the very same 12 September, four UK papers (the Guardian, the Telegraph, the Times and the Independent) had a total of 26 stories on Brexit on their home pages. In fact, the country’s political class has discussed little else since the referendum.
Unsurprisingly to those who said so, it turns out that Brexit has countless implications. It has become by far the UK’s most significant foreign, economic and political decision since Britain entered the common market, in 1973.
The government, MPs and pundits continue to debate myriad options. Should there be a transition? Should the UK stay in the single market, or the customs union? What to do about the land border in Ireland? And some, such as Tony Blair, are even suggesting the UK might reverse Brexit while still limiting freedom of movement.
These are all live arguments, both within and between the major political parties. But they have one common denominator: these are basically domestic debates about the stance the UK should take in negotiations. They ignore the EU side and the reality of the possible options – and this is several months after negotiations have officially begun.
So perhaps it is just good sense that leads the EU public to largely ignore this debate, as the press data implies. Why bother understanding the latest twist in British politics if it may already be old news tomorrow? Similarly, EU leaders are sitting back comfortably. They have agreed a position, and don’t want to move before the UK is sorted.
Still, there is plenty of posturing from the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, Juncker, and the rest. Only a year ago, the EU looked more fragile than it does now. There was real existential fear. And people don’t like to admit that Brexit also reveals European failures. Likewise, looking to the future, EU member states want to avoid a no-deal scenario. Everybody knows that the UK will remain an important European power. Close and trusting relations will be in the mutual interest. And while the EU is significantly more important to UK trade than the UK is to any single EU member state, a no-deal Brexit would still destroy some jobs on the continent.
There is also the short-term money issue. A two-year transition would conveniently let the EU avoid reopening negotiations on the remainder of the current multi-year budget. A cliff-edge Brexit would be bad for the EU.
The UK would, however, be mistaken to bet on endless patience from its EU friends. There is a problem of approach. The EU is a construction based on laws and detailed process. Europeans are sceptical about gentlemen’s agreements and grand bargains. If the UK in the end decides it wants a transition agreement that resembles single market membership – the Norway solution – we will have to find binding legal ways to implement this. It is much more than a one-off political decision to let the UK join the European Free Trade Association (Efta). Although even convincing Norway to allow this would be a tricky task.
Likewise, if the UK should somehow end up changing its mind on Brexit altogether, it shouldn’t expect a joyful reaction and an easy return to the status quo. After all, far too many remember that the UK has not always been an easy partner. The UK would at least have to negotiate a new settlement, and would certainly lose the rebate. But even a Brexit with a deal and an agreement on a future (trade) relation would require respecting both European politics and process.
If the UK wants to make a success of Brexit, then it needs to look at itself in a European mirror. For many in the EU, the UK is increasingly self-absorbed. And Brexit is too unimportant for the EU to be distracted from euro-area repair or the fight against tax avoidance by multinationals. There are still many Europeans, including myself, who really want to see a good compromise that establishes the UK as a privileged partner. But patience is running thin, and the prevailing narrative is becoming one where the UK must chose to be either fully “in” or a “third” country in the same basket as the US or even Russia. It is time for the UK to make up its mind about what it really wants from Brexit, and start building the trust and alliances it will need to get the EU’s full attention.