Damaging Dogma

Brussels should lighten up on Britain and compromise on Brexit

brexit leaders, eu
Come on, guys! Source: Reuters

Sticking to principles isn’t the first virtue that comes to mind when I think about the European Union. In its foreign policy and during the euro crisis, the bloc has displayed a degree of pragmatism that even euro skeptics have come to appreciate, simply because it delivers results, albeit at an agonizingly slow pace.

That makes it all the more surprising how principled, or rather how rigorous, the political elite of continental Europe has been in dealing with one of the most momentous events of recent decades: Britain’s exit from the European Union.

Over the last two years, EU leaders have been reeling off the mantra that the EU’s four basic freedoms are inviolable: the free movement of capital, goods, services and people. Chancellor Angela Merkel repeats these freedoms at every opportunity, saying she wants to preserve the “integrity” of the single market.

What she doesn’t mention is that it was the German government — a center-left coalition — that curtailed the free movement of Polish and Czech workers for seven years following the EU’s eastward expansion in 2004. At that time at least, freedom of movement didn’t appear quite so set in stone. Today by contrast, the EU is defending the freedom of movement and the status of the Northern Irish border — which is also cited as crucial for the integrity of the single market — with a missionary zeal that can only be described as astounding.

Playing into Brextremists’ hands

With Brexit just half a year away, there is no sign of a compromise that could put the future relationship between the EU and Britain on a constructive footing. On the contrary, the EU and the British are sleepwalking into a lose-lose situation: a no-deal Brexit. It’s rightly being called a chaotic exit because business relationships that have grown over decades would be deprived of their legal and economic foundations overnight. The EU’s second-biggest economy would revert to WTO status, which would rule out granting bilateral trade advantages because the EU would have to offer these to every member of the World Trade Organization under the WTO’s most-favored-nation principle.

There’s no doubt that British Prime Minister Theresa May has contributed to this almost hopeless situation. She hesitated for a long time before she even presented a realistic Brexit plan. She spent too long nurturing the illusion that Brexit could be achieved at no economic cost. “No deal is better than a bad deal,” she said — how wrong!

Ms. May largely has herself to blame for her isolation at what could prove a decisive Conservative party conference for her. Who is going to shield her from “Brextremists” like Boris Johnson? The EU’s uncompromising stance has so far merely strengthened those who are branding any negotiated deal as a betrayal of the British people.

Ms. May’s Chequers plan, which essentially means the free movement of goods (but not services) and a soft Northern Irish border, may have been unacceptable to some in the EU. But it could have been the basis for negotiations. Rejecting it as brusquely as was done at the EU summit in Salzburg merely played into Boris Johnson’s hands.

Exaggerated moral rigor

The thinking behind the rejection is even worse than the rejection itself: The EU wants to avoid creating any incentives for possible Brexit copycats. Evidently, the path out of the EU must be made as stony as possible. It’s as if EU membership were compulsory and everyone was trying to escape if they only had the chance. That’s an admission of defeat by the proud EU that was founded to overcome the two great wars of the first half of the 20th century. The bloc is falling short of the sovereign Europe espoused by French President Emmanuel Macron. The EU, which is right to be proud of its achievements since it was founded more than 60 years ago, is making itself small.

It would be best for both sides if Brexit, which still feels like an accident of history even two years after the fateful referendum, doesn’t happen. But the chances of it being averted are minuscule.

It’s a tragedy. The EU is losing a sixth of its economic power, a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and Britain’s military power. Above all, Europe is losing a big slice of liberal political culture, democratic and diplomatic know-how and a free-market stance that has countered tendencies in some parts of Europe towards state interventionism. Those assets are worth fighting for — at the cost of making compromises, if necessary.

Sovereignty also means showing largesse towards an increasingly isolated Britain that has taken a hopelessly wrong turn. Sometimes, exaggerated moral rigor can be every bit as damaging as the absence of morals.

To contact the author: muenchrath@handelsblatt.com

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