WASHINGTON – The European Union’s leaders said they wanted the United Kingdom to remain in the EU. But Brussels offered only minimal concessions to British Prime Minister David Cameron, undercutting his effort to sell the benefits of continued EU membership.
Now the Eurocrats who dominate EU policy are attempting to push the U.K. out the door. London should refuse to play their game: slowing down the process would maximize its leverage.
The principal argument for the EU is that is has created a common economic market. The most powerful argument against it is that continental elites are attempting to create a superstate by stealth. The EU’s post-vote behavior reinforces this criticism.
The vote to leave shocked Eurocrats across Europe. Even many Brexit advocates believed that “remain” would carry the day. The British government is not prepared to announce a Brexit program.
However, EU leaders almost immediately began pressing London to act. They want the U.K. to trigger Article 50, which begins a two-year process to renegotiate a departing member’s relationship with the EU.
Once taken the decision cannot be reversed. And if no agreement is reached within two years the country is unceremoniously defenestrated without any special access to the European market. The provision almost certainly was drafted to maximize the EU’s leverage.
But the U.K. need not hurry. The British government should hold off until it is ready.
First, the situation is chaotic. The prime minister is resigning. The opposition leader might be forced to resign. Scotland might again vote for independence. No one is ready to discuss Brexit terms.
Second, with both leading parties in flux, waiting would allow a new government and opposition to emerge. While it is difficult to imagine legislators refusing to respect the popular will, how to implement the vote remains to be decided. A new government should be in office first.
Third, the Eurocrats have split between those determined to impose punitive terms in order to discourage other states from leaving and those who prefer to be generous and maximize continued cooperation. Better to let passions cool before beginning negotiations.
Fourth, when the Brexit trigger is pulled is a political issue, not a legal issue. The referendum was advisory. No enabling legislation has been passed. Effective negotiations won’t be possible until a government, backed by a stable majority, is prepared to act. Indeed, with the Conservatives so badly split while enjoying only a small majority, a new election might be necessary.
Fifth, waiting would increase London’s bargaining power. The Eurocrats understand that accelerating the process would put greater pressure on London to make concessions, since a shorter deadline would threaten to leave the U.K. outside of the EU without any special access to the European market. However, Britain can play the same game by delaying.
Sixth, as passions cool the desire to exact revenge — to punish Britain to discourage other exiteers — likely will fade. While punitive measures might provide emotional satisfaction for some, failing to reach an agreement with the world’s fifth- and Europe’s second-largest economy would hurt everyone. Continued commercial links between the U.K. and continent are too important to sacrifice in a fit of pique. In the meantime London could begin informal chats with other governments in an attempt to build support for a smoother exit.
Seventh, slowing the process would give other nations more time to play a positive role. The U.S. and other nations such as Japan should indicate their willingness to begin negotiations with the U.K. over a free trade agreement as soon as the Brits are ready. Washington also should indicate that a smoother U.K.-EU divorce would improve the chances of a U.S.-EU trade pact.
Eighth, holding off on the official trigger creates at least a possibility of rapprochement between the U.K. and EU. Brexit just might shock Europe’s leading powers toward serious reforms. Donald Tusk, one of the EU’s many presidents (of the European Council) admitted that “ordinary people, the citizens of Europe, do not share our Euro-enthusiasm.” The EU will have to work to regain public trust and support. If successful, the EU might even change attitudes in the U.K.
The ultimate impact of Brexit remains to be seen. All parties should allow the passions of the political battle to cool. Pressure from Brussels on the Cameron government is empty: Neither the EU nor other member states can force London to leave.
In fact, slowing down the process would benefit Europe as well as the U.K. A hasty, angry negotiation would serve no one. The British vote could change the EU for the better. There’s no need to hurry Brexit.
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. He frequently writes on military non-interventionism and is the author of “Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.”
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