Here are the searching questions the EU27 are failing to ask themselves in the wake of Brexit

Here are the searching questions the EU27 are failing to ask themselves in the wake of Brexit

As regular readers of this site know, I campaigned to Remain in the EU, but I recognise a democratic decision and that the British people voted by a good margin to leave the European Union.

Despite all the controversies around the funding and the information provided during the referendum, I believe the campaign was properly fought – it was a long one, well-debated and democratic participation was high. I have little doubt that a similar result would be repeated today.

I am therefore a believer in the Government getting on with the job of delivering the best possible Brexit in the UK interest. Brexit is, in my view, a set of opportunities and a set of challenges: as with all things in politics, it is a matter of maximising the opportunities and minimising the challenges.

But this article isn’t about the UK approach to Brexit. It is about the response from the Commission and the other 27 EU countries to Brexit.

In the last two years, I have spent a lot of time in the other EU27 member states. I have visited 20 of the 27 since the referendum, mostly on ministerial visits during my time at the Department for International Trade, meeting government ministers, being interviewed in the media, meeting industry groups and so on.

I have made speeches in German, French and Czech, and answered questions from tough audiences, like in Munich in January.

As a result, I would make the following series of observations about the response to Brexit in the EU27.

First of all, far too few politicians in the EU27 – and none in Brussels – have really sought to ask the serious question of why the UK voted to Leave. Mainstream British media in the years before the referendum – including, if not especially, the BBC – broadcast its main stories about the EU in relation to the Eurozone Crisis of 2010-16 and the European Migration Crisis of 2015-16. On British TV screens, the EU appeared full of problems, not solutions. Although the UK was not directly affected by either crisis – and for the Eurozone one, the new Government in 2010 had successfully extricated ourselves from being on the hook – nonetheless the EU looked like a club in crisis in the immediate years preceding the referendum.

Nevertheless, the most senior German politician I know blames “Boris, Corbyn and the bus” (in that order) for Brexit – not any possibility that the EU might have been the cause, in part or in full, of its own unpopularity. It’s a far more convenient narrative to believe that any or all of dishonesty, Russian money, “populism”, the tabloid press etc, were responsible, rather than any problem(s) in the EU itself. However, this isn’t universally the case. Another senior German CDU Cabinet member told me ten days after the referendum that he “regretted how much we had done to keep Greece in the EU, yet so little to keep Britain in, yet we know who we’d rather be with”. I was at the CSU Party Conference in November 2016 when Horst Seehofer, German CSU Party Leader, told his party pointedly that he “wanted a Europe that people want to vote for, not against”.

Nevertheless, virtually no mainstream voices in the EU27 support Brexit, or think it’s a good idea, or even think it is a good idea for the UK. Of course, some anti-EU parties like France’s Front National and Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland are themselves eurosceptic, or even seeking to exit. But, to the best of my knowledge, no mainstream centre-right or centre-left party or politician has come to London and asked me, or anyone else: “Brexit – how do you do it?” or “how can we copy you?” In short, no serious mainstream continental European politician or political party thinks that Brexit is a good idea.

This therefore makes the widely-noted Commission stance to want to “punish Britain,” to stop others joining us, even more remarkable. Nobody serious wants to join us in leaving the EU. The Commission’s position is therefore based on a fiction, and designed to con mainstream politicians in the member states that they need to be tough on Britain to stop their own “domestic populism”. Some in Brussels claim that if Brexit were to be anything other than a disaster for Britain, it would lead to others following; but I am clear from my travels: nobody does want to copy us.

Therefore, EU member states need to realise that their interests are best served by Brexit working as well as possible – not badly, as the Commission likes to think – and that the EU27 have a large economic skin in the game. Figures last week from the IMF suggest the EU would lose around 1.5% of its GDP, significantly less than their forecast for the UK. Now, whatever one thinks of IMF forecasts, 1.5% of GDP is still a huge amount, and is concentrated in Germany, the Benelux and Ireland (of course). And it is national politicians who have to face the wrath of their electorates, more than European ones.

A 1.5% cut in GDP would presumably be spread over a few quarters, which means the IMF appears to be forecasting a recession in north-western Europe in the event of a Brexit involving a serious disruption to trade. These days, in a domestic economy, a quarterly growth figure of +0.4% is deemed a success by politicians and anything of +0.1% or less a failure. So -1.5% is definitely something that leads to trouble with the electorate. Moreover, arguing that “the other guys (e.g. the UK itself) have had it worse” is rarely a winning formula in domestic politics.

Meanwhile, it is in the UK national interest for the EU to be a success. This might be controversial on this site, but in the same way that EU27 economies would be damaged gravely by a disruptive Brexit, so in reverse will we benefit from stronger economies in the EU27. This was why the UK also supported the eurozone keeping together in its crisis years of 2010-16, even though we were clear that we would never join it. The same is true now for the wider EU. Not only that, we need to make clear to the EU27 that that is our position. We have no English word of our own for Schadenfreude.

The EU27 needs to realise how important UK trade is to them. I have been to every EU Trade Council meeting over the last year, and every time we discussed new trade agreement possibilities with countries and blocs far and wide, from Mercosur to Mexico, from Chile to New Zealand. As it happens, in all of those meetings, I was the strongest advocate of the EU’s trade agreement agenda. The UK is the biggest believer in free trade in the EU. But overnight next 29th March, as we leave, the UK becomes almost the EU’s largest single external trading partner, only just behind the US, and larger than any of China, Japan, India or Russia. EU-UK trade is huge, yet the EU Trade Council meetings aren’t even allowed to discuss a future Trade Agreement with the UK.

So finally, the time has come for everyone in the other member states – the EU27 – to realise that their vital national and economic interests are at stake in these negotiations. And I haven’t even mentioned the other parts of the relationship – defence, counter-terrorism, security, foreign policy, the Russia threat, etc. It is not too late; in fact, the timing could hardly be better to make a decisive difference.