The vote to ‘Leave’ the European Union is unquestionably the most significant political, economic, cultural and geopolitical decision of any Western European nation since 1945 - this is a truism, not a cliché, with unpredictable and complex ramifications for our nation, partners and posterity.
The 52% of the voting electorate who crossed that box have been the subject of significant inquiry, as has the impact of extrication itself, though apparently not by Government departments, according to the Brexit Secretary. I do not intend to add to this body of work, nor dwell on the infinite areas of concern that the decision to leave has ignited; instead, I have been asked to put together some words on the thinking within the EU itself, an oddly unexplored area in most of the UK press except where out-rightly hostile, and one which is necessarily personal, unofficial, but I hope of interest to Gloucestershire stakeholders who are asking the question: ‘what will Brexit mean for us?’.
Despite the image often conjured up domestically, the UK has always had serious strategic alliances within the EU. For example, a general coalition with the Netherlands in favour of an economically liberal agenda has often been the counterweight to a more protectionist France. Some relationships also have a historic or emotive strain such as that between the UK and Belgium. After initial surprise across Europe, the hard realpolitik of inter-European diplomacy began to change, and it is hardly unsurprising that many partners who saw the UK as the significant counter balance to a Franco-German Axis felt abandoned. This is at a time when a resurgent Russia, belligerent Visegrad bloc and suffering Mediterranean all pose existential difficulties to the EU.
Despite the assurances of ‘they need us more than we need them’, the fundamental reality of the EU is one often lost on domestic audiences, namely economic progress is necessary but not sufficient to the EU ideal, and the institutions will defend its integrity no matter what the cost. It stands to reason that the institutions take this collective position, and will view the UK as a close but separate third party with all that entails. I have never believed the UK cannot exist outside the EU, just that the opportunities will shrink, with our position and prosperity reduced.
The above caveat a given, there remains significant personal and political goodwill within the EU. It would be naive to think that there are not groups who wish to exploit or punish the Brexit position, but a far more significant group feel leaving is a serious error, recognise profound problems, but acknowledge the need to reach a sustainable agreement if the challenges of the future are to be combated at an international level. In December 2017, the European Parliament agreed to progress negotiations onto the second phase, but highlighted that one of the ‘most important separation issues by far concerns the rights of UK citizens in the EU’ and that ‘the Withdrawal Agreement needs to set out in a clear and unambiguous text...future free movement rights across the whole EU for UK citizens currently resident in an EU-27 Member State’.
This is not the language of a hostile or aggressive foreign entity, but one that in deeply regretting the situation is also looking for the most equitable outcome.
My hope is that there is potential for a positive narrative to unite a fracturing continent and drive forward cooperation, but my fear is that that potential may buckle under populism and political expediency. Stroud, Gloucestershire, the West and the UK stands at a crossroads from which even the slightest error could prove dangerously consequential.