The migrant crisis, the sanctions on Russia and the trade deal with Canada have unveiled how divided European politics can be.
Four months after the Brexit vote, the political mood in Europe is hard to grasp. In the immediate aftermath of the referendum, European leaders seemed to have found a new source of unity, shown by the almost identical official declarations of their respective heads of State. However, new problems and old conflicts have changed that. Since the June vote, the migrant crisis, the sanctions on Russia and the trade deal with Canada have unveiled how divided European politics can be, and foreshadowed an unpleasant Brexit debate.
Germany seems to be the true hardliner, with Angela Merkel repeatedly denying any “cherry-picking exercise” during the negotiations, scuppering Boris Johnson’s pre-Brexit proposal of granting single market access to the U.K. while at the same time restricting immigration. The German Chancellor was among the first to openly define the British decision to leave “irrevocable” and to pressure the U.K. government into triggering Article 50 without delay.
Behind this apparent tough stand there are conflicting interest, which even the powerful chancellor will have a tough time aligning. On the one hand, the £114 billion trade in goods and services between Germany and the U.K. represent a powerful incentive for Berlin to strike a compromise in the negotiations even at the expense of one of the four fundamental ‘EU freedoms’ (free movement of goods, people, services and capital). On the other hand, granting special rights to the UK could prove to be political suicide, since it would be seen as an additional evidence of the failure of the EU project. This all plays into the hands of the Eurosceptic AfD (Alternatif fur Deutschland) party, which dethroned Merkel’s CDU in one of its historical stronghold during the last regional election in Germany and is now threatening the long-standing Christian-Democratic leadership.
France faces similar challenges and has so far echoed Germany in the Brexit discussion. Francois Hollande declared future negotiations will be “tough” and has adhered to the four fundamental freedoms argument. At home the French prime minister faces the unrelenting insurgence of the Eurosceptic and xenophobic “Front National”, which are expected to do well in next spring’s elections.
In the East the so-called Visegrad group will try to secure the rights of the more than 1 million Czech, Hungarian, Polish and Slovaks working in the UK, thus opposing any limitations on the freedom of movement which will be discussed next March.
Looking south, it seems like Italy may be a better listener to London’s demands. The country has less skin in the game with a relatively modest £38 billion trade with the UK and was a helpful partner during David Cameron’s first negotiations. According to Open Europe, a London-based think-thank that analyses European politics, the UK could secure Italy’s support by avoiding the usual “divide and rule” tactic. This is because Italy has a strong interest to see a united Europe, without which it cannot hope to handle the constant influx of migrants from North Africa.
What is puzzling for many Europeans is the general tone of the discussion set by Theresa May, which was meant to show a muscular reaction to the vote in line with popular demands, but that risk starting the future negotiations on the wrong foot. May’s tone has so far backfired, as shown by rumors of EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier suggesting French as the official language during the talks and the Brexit task force appointed by Donald Tusk being instructed to be ready for a “dirty Brexit”.
Politicians will be pushed at home by populist parties to take a hard line with Britain during the Brexit debate; added to conflicting interests among the states themselves, European politics is going to look increasingly unpleasant over the next few years.
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