The reality is that after this election any UK government will be a weak one: no matter whether the cabinet is led by Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn. There are opportunities here.
It was short-sighted and self-defeating of Angela Merkel, following the surprise result of the UK elections, when she opted for stressing that the European Union was “ready” to start with the Brexit negotiation, so please “stick to the time plan”.
Although she went on to say that "Britain is part of Europe”, at the core, her message reiterated the old refrain that the EU countries would be "asserting the interests of the 27 member states that will make up the European Union in future" during the Brexit negotiations. This position is surely driven by the upcoming German elections. However, Ms. Merkel is failing to grasp the great opportunity provided by the UK result: to reverse or minimize Brexit. This would circumvent the trap of European reliance on Berlin that places the entire weight of leadership solely on the German’s shoulders, with the concrete risk of making her the scapegoat for the Union’s problems.
Macron, on the contrary, has understood this danger very well. Thus, he has wisely congratulated May while adding that “the friendship between France and the UK is strong and it will overcome any difficulty”. Macron is quite right in adopting a cautions approach, as the United Kingdom is still, despite its controversial stance, a strategic partner for those who aim to “refound” the European Union. By the same logic financial analysts who keep saying that a hung parliament is the worst possible electoral outcome, are making a mistake. But at the end of the day they are paid to elaborate short-term provisions and not to understand the far more dynamic and longterm phenomena that make up politics.
The reality is that after this election any UK government will be a weak one: no matter whether the cabinet is led by Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn, in both scenarios the cabinet will lack the strength and legitimacy of a strong and clear popular mandate. And yet, paradoxically, this weakness could represent the greatest opportunity for the Union to assist the UK towards a merely nominal Brexit (no concessions on freedom of movement in exchange for the right to remain within the single market). Or it could even confer on the EU the historic victory of forcing Her Majesty’s Government to choose between a new referendum or a ‘no deal’, which would eject the UK directly outside the globalised world.
In fact, the EU needs the United Kingdom just as much as the United Kingdom needs the EU. Given the rocky nature of the marriage between these two entities over some time, a deeper and more structural “rearrangement” is surely required than those clumsily attempted by Cameron. The United Kingdom needs the EU because the strength of a city like London is to represent and to be the financial core of the Union, by linking it to the global financial markets. However, the English need us as well to help them reformulate the model of welfare and the social state that has been trampled on through the years, exposing them to those irrational inequalities ably denounced by Corbyn.
The opposite is also true, the EU needs the UK as a big part of its exports, on which the still unsteady European economy relies, goes there. Germany exports into the UK more than 90 million euros worth, a figure that has increased by 50% in the last five years. It would be a real disaster for the German economy if the English cut this number down as a result of the introduction of new duties. But perhaps an even more important reason makes the UK absolutely critical for future developments of the EU, since the United Kingdom, together with the USA, constitute the centre of modernity. The four top-league non-American universities are indeed English, and English contains the music and many more of the symbols which define our times.
If Europe loses the UK, it will become more provincial, dangerously self-centred and reliant on Berlin. This is a threat that Ms. Merkel cannot fail to recognise. The real news about Macron is that, despite being French, he understood that France and the EU can only have a future if they renounce and free themselves from that syndrome of “grandeur” so inappropriate for the times.
At the end of the day we need the British in order to imagine a different Europe and to go beyond the unsustainable illusion of a “United States of Europe”.
Some sorts of ‘supra-national state’, in an era where new technologies are constantly eroding national boundaries and borders, are simply inconceivable. Britain has been crucial to the realisation of the single market and for the elaboration of those “variable geometries’ which today are allowing the process of integration to go further and to evolve. Furthermore, a nation that has learned to go beyond bureaucracy as its ‘driving force from within’ is critical to bringing Europe into a century which demands flexible institutions.
It is understandable for the Commission, and for Brussels, to be almost obsessed by the necessity to “stick to the time plan” and to complete the negotiations within the agreed timescale: like every bureaucracy, their priority is to close the file. However, the Brexit file is far too important to be left in the hands of an administration that noone has ever elected.
Francesco Grillo is president of the think tank Vision. He has a PhD from LSE, and is an advisor to Italy’s Minister for Universities, Research and Education. He is also visiting scholar at St Antony’s College, Oxford University and a columnist for the Italian newspaper Il Corriere della Sera. Annalisa Cappellini is Associate of the independent think tank Vision. She is a PhD candidate in politics at King's College London, working on party politics, intra-party democracy and political leadership. This post first appeared on OpenDemocracy.
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