Two veterans of European politics have warned that the EU can do little to save Britain from the consequences of a self-inflicted hard Brexit. Speaking to Handelsblatt in an exclusive joint interview, Joschka Fischer, a former German foreign minister, and Peter Mandelson, the former European trade commissioner, said that while they hoped to see Britain remain within the European single market, this seemed “highly unrealistic” under Prime Minister Theresa May.
The two men were leading figures of European liberalism in recent decades, deeply committed to the European project. Mr. Mandelson was a close ally of British Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair, while Mr. Fischer, as leader of the German Green party, helped bring it into the political mainstream. Discussing Brexit over lunch in a Berlin restaurant, their shared forebodings were clear, although Mr. Mandelson remained slightly more optimistic.
Both expressed concern over the tense exchanges between London and Brussels ahead of formal talks on British withdrawal from the European Union, which are due to begin next month. On the British side, Mr. Mandelson blamed British nationalist sentiment and a xenophobic press during an election campaign.
He said it was a “natural instinct” on Britain’s part to try and divide the other 27 EU countries, but this was a poor tactic that could backfire. “As a trade negotiator, you are actually better off negotiating with people who have a coherent and cohesive position,” he said. Mr. Fischer agreed that the two sides were jockeying for position, which he said was unwise: “I never liked these skirmishing tactics – I believe more in trust-building.”
“I don’t think Britain will be happy sitting outside the door, waiting to be told what has been decided”
On the question of Ms. May’s intentions in calling the UK snap election, Mr. Mandelson said he thought she wanted a larger majority in order to push through a hard Brexit: She wanted a strong political position to protect herself from negative consequences. Some observers have taken a different view, suggesting the British prime minister wants a mandate in order to make Brexit compromises.
Asked if Chancellor Angela Merkel could act as a broker between Brussels and London, Mr. Fischer said there was little she could do. For the German government, a unified position among the remaining 27 European Union states had the highest priority. In any case, the negotiation process was the responsibility of the EU’s executive body, the Commission, he added.
The former German foreign minister said Brexit was unlikely to play a significant role in the German elections, scheduled for September 24. “Germany is in the happy situation that European policy is bipartisan there. There is a broad consensus on Europe.” He said Germany’s relation to France and the reform of the euro zone would be more important issues than Brexit. Mr. Mandelson said he hoped Germany would play a bridging role, helping to unite northern and southern Europe.
Mr. Fischer insisted that the European Union would and should not seek to punish Britain for deciding to leave the bloc. Indeed there is no need: Brexit will hurt the UK regardless. His British colleague stressed that Europe must grasp any sign of compromise from Britain, and be generous on trade questions if there was any possibility of agreement.
Mr. Mandelson, who now serves as a peer in the UK’s House of Lords, said he felt Brexit “success” could only mean continued British membership of the European single market, through the European Economic Area, which includes such non-EU countries as Norway and Switzerland. Britain must remain part of the wider European economic family, he said. If the UK remained in the single market, he was confident that some institutional arrangements could be made: “It would take negotiation, but there is greater flexibility there than some people imagine.”
For Mr. Fischer, this prospect was unrealistic: “I don’t think Britain will be happy sitting outside the door, waiting to be told what has been decided.” Continued British connections to the European Union were the rational choice, he said, agreeing with Mr. Mandelson, but it was simply impossible under the current British government.
Mr. Mandelson agreed that Ms. May’s hardline stance on migration and legal structures in effect ruled out single-market membership. But tight limits on migration would carry a painful economic price, he said, and this might eventually shift British public opinion. In the event of a British rethink on the single market, the EU should be flexible, allowing Britain access and influence, he said.
In their melancholy reflections on British-European relations, both men also emphasized the importance of continued goodwill, regardless of the result of negotiations. “Despite our divorce, we should continue to love each other,” Mr. Mandelson said. Mr. Fischer said he felt like the unhappy child of divorcing parents, but said geography did not change, and the imperative was to remain good neighbors.
Torsten Riecke is Handelsblatt’s international correspondent. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org