Commentary / World

Where is the European Union's Brexit policy?

by Clive Crook

Bloomberg

At the moment, despite strong competition from the United States, Britain leads the industrialized world in political breakdown. Prime Minister Theresa May’s plan for Brexit has been crushingly rejected by the House of Commons — the margin of defeat was unprecedented — yet the government plods on robotically. As May explained: One, she has heard what Parliament just said and respects it; two, her deal with Europe is the right deal for the country. There’s something about “no, no, a thousand times no” that she doesn’t seem to understand.

So the United Kingdom’s current preeminence in dysfunction is not to be questioned. Nonetheless, it’s still worth asking if Europe is handling its part in this crisis all that well.

Until now the European Union’s basic posture has been that Brexit is indeed a crisis — but for the U.K., not so much for the rest of Europe. Britain made this problem, Britain is grossly mismanaging it, and Britain must expect to suffer the consequences. It’s a shame, but there’s little Europe can do and anyway it isn’t our problem.

Perhaps this will turn out to have been a smart negotiating position; it’s hard to be sure before the final outcome is known. But how odd if Europe’s leaders really think that Brexit is anything but the biggest setback the union has suffered since the project began. One of the world’s biggest economies is quitting the European project, with potentially serious economic consequences for the rest of the EU, at a time when Europe’s economies are faltering anyway. You might have thought that avoiding Brexit altogether, or at least mitigating the harm it might do, deserved some attention.

As a matter of fact, Europe could have avoided Brexit altogether. It could have agreed to the request for modest concessions on free movement of people within the union that Prime Minister David Cameron made when he first set out to renegotiate the U.K.’s terms of membership. Europe’s other leaders sent him back with nothing, deeming freedom of movement to be “indivisible” from free trade in goods, services and capital. Since it’s obvious that free movement of people is easily divisible from the others, Europe wasn’t really saying it couldn’t be done; it was merely refusing to do it. The result of that intransigence was the referendum and Brexit.

Once Britain had amazed itself and everybody else by voting to quit, and before it had given formal notice to leave, Europe’s leaders could have reconsidered and prevailed on it to think again. They didn’t.

Once the Article 50 notice to quit had been issued, they could have allowed wide-ranging talks on a close U.K.-EU partnership, preserving as much as possible of the economic integration achieved to great mutual advantage over the previous decades. Instead, they insisted on a strict separation between the terms of withdrawal, to be settled first, and the longer-term arrangements, to be discussed in detail only when the first was all done.

This logically nonsensical separation of the two strands had one especially serious consequence. Europe’s negotiators wanted a provision in the withdrawal agreement — the so-called backstop — to avoid the reintroduction of a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. In effect, this demand anticipated and constrained the long-term agreement before detailed talks on the long term had even started. For good measure, it did so in a way that entailed the economic annexation of the north to the EU.

So the EU first insisted on a strict and counterproductive sequencing of the talks, and then departed from its own position on that principle by implanting a potentially long-term provision that was especially poisonous for the U.K. The most remarkable aspect of this amazing maneuver is that May agreed to it. In any event, it was the backstop — a device that might never have been required — that made the withdrawal agreement impossible to push through the U.K. Parliament.

Many supporters of Brexit reviewing this history would see calculated ruthlessness on the EU side. Once Britain had decided to leave, it had to suffer and be seen to suffer, so other countries wouldn’t try to do the same. (The Soviet Union applied the same basic logic, albeit with less subtlety, to Hungary in 1956.) Yet it’s hard to see why the EU should be so defensive: If the blessings of its many indivisible freedoms are so apparent, you’d think letting Britain go without inflicting further avoidable damage would send a sufficiently clear message to the other members.

Admittedly, at the moment, the blessings aren’t all that apparent. Even so, I think it flatters EU leaders to imagine that they’re capable of forming and executing a strategy that best serves Europe’s interests.

When it comes to Brexit they’ve mainly been simply absent — intellectually, politically and diplomatically. They put blithely unyielding bureaucrats in charge of the exit negotiations, as though not much was at stake, then settled into a mode of telling Britain that one concession was impossible and another couldn’t be done and negotiations had concluded and the deal May agreed to is the last and final word.

The Commons vote was a setback for this non-strategy. Perhaps, at this pitifully late stage, it will prompt a rethink in Europe’s capitals about all the things that Europe couldn’t possibly agree to. Britain is the principal author and victim of this sorry saga, no doubt, but Europe has a lot to lose as well, not just from a cliff-edge Brexit, but also from any outcome that leaves both sides seething with rage. Is it too much to ask that Europe’s leaders start acting as though they understand that?

Clive Crook is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and writes editorials on economics, finance and politics. He was chief Washington commentator for the Financial Times, a correspondent and editor for the Economist and a senior editor at the Atlantic.