I stood next to Jean Claude-Juncker, then president of the European Council and prime minister of Luxembourg, when news flashed up on the TV screens of the astonishing rejection by French voters of the draft European Constitution in their 2005 referendum. He could have responded in so many ways, to try to understand why the voters in traditionally one of Europe’s most Europhile countries emphatically rejected further EU integration. But his immediate response, without drawing breath, was: “They will just have to vote again.” In fact, the French voters weren’t trusted to give the right answer second time around, and so the treaty was pushed through the French parliament instead. Dial forward 13 years, and Juncker is now president of the European Commission, and Britain's government has been trying to agree a Brexit deal with him in the response to the UK’s own referendum.
It now seems increasingly likely that the UK and EU will not reach an agreement, and that the UK will leave in March 2019 with no deal. The Government has gone into full no-deal planning mode. Business groups are issuing dire warnings. Conservative MPs are already threatening to resign the Tory whip if we “crash out” of the EU.
The blame game has already started: if we do leave the EU without a deal, whose fault would it be? It is almost certain that many people on both sides of the Channel will point fingers at the UK government, and the PM in particular. The chaos and division on the Tory side has certainly given many reasons to do so. The British chattering classes love nothing better than to blame Britain – and even better, the Tories.
But it takes two sides to reach an agreement. And this comes back to the instinctive intransigence and unwillingness to compromise of the EU. There is plenty of fault on the EU side, for leaving the UK with a draft treaty so one-sided that it seems inevitable that Parliament will reject it. Even then the EU refused to compromise at all when Theresa May asked for some wiggle room. Many helped push the EU and Juncker in this direction. Some are already pointing fingers at Tony Blair, who has been abusing his position as former prime minister to actively lobby for a second referendum. To the extent he has had any effect, his efforts would have made a deal less likely. Irish diplomats have been quoted as being delighted in how they managed to get the EU and Juncker to weaponise the Northern Irish border. But the Irish government also fears that it may have overplayed its hand – that their great triumph could backfire and lead to a no-deal Brexit, of which the biggest victim would be Ireland.
Yet there is a problem deeper than this. In twenty years of being involved with EU politics, I have come to realise that, although the EU has many much-publicised flaws – and indeed many great strengths – there is a fundamental flaw that underlines them all which is rarely mentioned. It is at the root, not just of the troubled Brexit negotiations, but of the EU’s mounting problems with the European public. It is the fundamental reason why the UK is leaving in the first place, and why Switzerland and Norway could never join. It is why a prime minister with no democratic mandate was imposed on Italy, whose voters responded by electing populists. It is why Eastern European countries are electing leaders who rail against the EU. It is why the EU hates referendums, and works to overturn them if it gets the wrong answer. It is why the principle of subsidiarity – doing things at national level where possible, and only at EU level where necessary – is comprehensively ignored. It is why every country that joins the EU is forced by treaty to join the Euro whether or not they want to. It is why national leaders consistently fail to deliver the EU to their citizens, and so end up trying to deliver their citizens to the EU – just as David Cameron did after his pre-referendum negotiations, and Theresa May is valiantly trying to do now.
Until the EU accepts this flaw, it will fail to address it, and will continue its losing battle with European public opinion. The EU has at its core not a sense of fairness, but of coerciveness. There is a belief not in doing the fair and pragmatic thing, but that “building Europe” or “protecting Europe”, justifies forcing countries to do things they don’t want to do. I used to speak to British cabinet ministers before and after they went into European Council meetings, and frequently saw them defeated on the most reasonable measures – but they felt compelled to claim a completely fictitious victory in public. Every time the Commission forced a country to do something they didn’t want to do, officials would see it as a triumph. I remember the delighted face of an EU official who had outmanoeuvred the UK government and forced it to abandon its long held objection to adopting EU crimes. Flush with victory over a democratically elected government, he crowed to me: “it is a rules based system. They have to follow the rules.”
But rather than making the EU stronger with contented members and good friends as neighbours, this coercive attitude risks destroying the EU, and alienating natural allies such as the UK. Negotiations work best, and lead to more sustainable results, if each side has a sense of what is fair for the other side. That is the instinct of many EU member states and politicians that I have spoken to. But the EU as a whole does not operate like that. If the more powerful side of a negotiation tries to force the other side to agree unfair terms, the negotiations either break down or the result is unsustainable. When David Cameron got offered virtually nothing in his negotiations with the EU because they thought they could get away with it, the UK electorate ended up voting for Brexit. Theresa May now faces the same problem.
Leaked communications from the EU negotiators saw them boasting they retained all control. Their objective was not a fair deal between partners, but to use their leverage to get what they could. Fair enough you might say, but such an approach risks the outright collapse of the deal, and longer term bitterness.
Many on the other side realise that the EU’s intransigence risks causing a no-deal Brexit. Yanis Varoufakis, the celebrated former Greek finance minister who carries scars from his struggles with EU negotiators, warned recently that the EU had “declared war”on the UK, and that “You do not negotiate with the EU because the EU does not negotiate with you.” The Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki warned just before Christmas that the EU’s “harsh” behaviour would derail Brexit, and urged them to help May.
The present existential crisis for the EU is an opportunity for reform, to give up its coercive ways and become more flexible, to focus on serving member states rather than controlling them. To become a club confident enough that it can be generous rather than threatening when people want to leave, to have as its ambition deals with its neighbours that both sides see as fair. But there is little sign that the EU is learning those lessons, with leaders insisting the solution to the crisis is “more Europe”. Insanity, said Benjamin Franklin, is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. If the EU carries on the same, the results won’t be different. It will be more crisis.
Anthony Browne is a former Europe Editor of the Times, and director of Policy Exchange