The waiting is over. Britain is now clearly formulating a road-map towards its divorce with Europe. And that is quite something. Because for a long time there was no clarity about the Brexit: how it would happen, when it would happen, and who would do it. And what the consequences would be. For too long, too many people were having false illusions that the Britons would somehow change their minds. Or that Britain would somehow manage to keep its place in the European market. Well, the EU’s response was No. Juncker had said even before the referendum that the UK would have to either take it all or leave it all. That was a warning and a treat: there would be no compromise, “deserting traitors” would not be welcome.
Now we can sense some Schadenfreude in the statements coming from Brussels. Whenever the plunging pound is mentioned, the general mood is that this is deserved punishment for Britain. Perhaps Brussels wants to discipline the other 27 members this way, but in fact it’s only giving ammo to more Euro-skepticism, and harming itself economically. For example, it is in the interest of the German exporters to have access to the British market without trade restrictions, because this is a very important market for them. 1/5 of all German cars go to Britain, after all.
Now the British are finding themselves compelled to look for other ways, and take on the offensive. They want to leave the European internal market and re-negotiate their relations with the EU, and hopefully achieve as close a trade partnership as possible. At least that is how we can read Mrs May’s speech from the other day, which by the way she gave with quite some sense of defiance and pride. Britain does not intend to beg Brussels for anything, you see. It wants to be open to the whole world. And this matches well with Trump’s plans to reach a bilateral agreement with the UK. Given the EU’s enormous difficulties in negotiating transnational trade agreements, we shouldn’t rule out the possibility that other countries like China and Brazil could pursue separate agreements with Britain as well.
Of course, few Britons wanted things to come to this point. Those who voted for the Brexit mostly wanted better control on immigration. Contrary to the predominant impression in continental Europe, the Britons didn’t have such a problem with the current migrants of EU origin, but rather the future ones. There were frequent questions before the referendum how Cameron would stop the hundreds of thousands of migrants from arriving to Britain after getting EU citizenship (mostly German). He never had an adequate answer to this. And Merkel’s policy of uncontrolled migration at the time added new momentum to the pro-Brexit camp. We all know the result.
Whatever we say, the decision has been made. And Brussels and Berlin have to adjust their behaviour. Juncker’s warning/threat about the “deserting traitors” reveals a certain amount of bewilderment with the very possibility that someone, anyone, could even think of turning their back on the brave Brussels-led world. A world that was so complacent and self-assured in its own righteousness and correctness that it never saw the trouble coming. And now the Brexit is putting the entire EU as we know it in question. Which is not necessarily a dangerous or a bad thing – it could actually turn out to be a healthy catalyst for real change. Because, as great an idea as the European project may be, it cannot be sustained through pressure and threats of punishment. Its strength is when it is open and attractive, not intimidating.