As the Committee for Exiting the EU continued its work scrutinising the Brexit negotiations, I asked about how the United Kingdom was being viewed by other European countries.
Stephen Kinnock: Good morning. I just wanted to drill down a bit further into what Charles was saying there about changing attitudes within the EU towards the United Kingdom. I am afraid I am going to put you all on the spot a bit to give us a sense of where the member states actually are. There is a view that Portugal, Ireland, Poland, Hungary and Donald Tusk want the UK to stay in the European Union. They would like the UK to either revoke or to have a referendum and remain, and all the rest want us out because we have become toxic, a virus in the European body politic. If we were to have a referendum and remain, potentially ending up with a hard-line Eurosceptic as Prime Minister, but within the European Union, at some point in the future, we would simply be back to where we are now, and that would potentially wreck the European project. I would be very grateful if you could give a sense of where the numbers are in the EU on that question.
Sir Jonathan Faull: There is bemusement, sometimes amusement, and people are fed up. Across Europe, certainly in institutional Brussels, this has gone on too long. This stable, rational, pragmatic country seems unrecognisable to many watching us. There is no going back, and certain things are irrevocable. There have been changes and we do not know where they will necessarily end up, but people have given up on the idea that people are going to wake up with this never having happened, article 50 will disappear and the UK will go back to what it was before, which was a sometimes awkward but largely constructive member state. The balance of power in Europe has been disrupted and will be considerably disrupted when we leave.
How it works out in practice—a Europe with France and Germany as, without the UK, the two remaining sides of what was the dominant triangle—we will have to see, but every single county is now thinking seriously, as we are moving, one way or another, into the final phase of this, about its future relations with this country and what that means for the way it thinks about its membership of the European Union. It is not as simple as a list of countries on one side and a list of countries on the other, because, yes, countries have a durable interest, but they also have a political shifts going on and there will be different views. These are all democracies being expressed.
There is still enormous sympathy for the predicament of Ireland in all this. The unity of the 27 has been remarkable, but to be honest we have made it very easy for them. Forgive me; I am going to talk about cricket for a minute. The bowling has been pretty easy for the batsman, the batsman being Brussels, because they have been able to say, maiden over after maiden over, “We are waiting for the British to tell us what they want”. They are united around a solid, legal position, which they struck pretty early and have stuck to. There is some vindication in opinion polling that the contagion effect has not worked out as people feared, because we have made such a mess of it that Eurosceptical ardour has, in fact, diminished across European countries. It does not mean that Euroscepticism, populism or nationalism have gone away, but it means that people thinking about their national fate outside the euro, or outside the European Union altogether, are thinking a lot harder than they used to about what it would really mean in practice.
There is a debate behind the unity of the 27, and that debate will come to the surface even more as we move into the second phase of working out the future relations between this country and the European Union, and then as the rest of the European Union moves into a new phase with a different balance of power structures between its member states and the Brussels institutions.
Stephen Kinnock: I was not able to pin you down to where the member states sit. I will just give my list again. Poland, Ireland, Hungary, Portugal and Donald Tusk are the only member states, and an individual, that want the United Kingdom to stay in the European Union. Ms Brunner, would you agree with that list?
Larissa Brunner: I would prefer not to be pinned down. I agree with Sir Jonathan Faull that it is quite difficult to give you a list with a set of countries on one side and a set of countries on the other side. Of your list, I would agree that Donald Tusk would probably like the UK to stay. It would of course make life much easier for Ireland. Regarding the other member states, there is a variety of opinions. It is not as straightforward as saying that, for example, Germany wants the UK out because, even within Germany, there are some people who would like the UK to change its mind and some who would probably prefer the UK to be out. There are quite a variety of opinions.
What matters is not only what the countries want but how strongly they feel about it. Would a country like Hungary really stand up to the other 26, fight for its position and use its political capital on the Brexit issue? I am not sure that Brexit is necessarily that important to most member states, with the big exception of Ireland, of course, and possibly France, because Macron seems quite invested in it in a very different way. Other than that, most member states have different concerns. Countries like Hungary and Poland have their own issues with the EU and, in that context and in the context of the rule of law questions, I am not sure they would spend a lot of political capital on Brexit, fighting for and defending a position that may go against the consensus. Even if countries would prefer the UK to stay in, I am not sure they would necessarily be passionate allies.
Charles Grant: I have heard a senior official cite the counties you have just named, Mr Kinnock, but I have heard another senior official say, “No, that is completely wrong. Apart from France, they almost all want to keep us in”. The truth is that we do not actually know and they have not taken public positions. As Larissa has said, opinions are divided in, say, Germany, and there are different views from different people. Most of them have not had to take a public position.
What has changed in the last six months is that even those countries that would like to see the British stay are so fed up that they are not prepared to bend over backwards and pull out their fingers to help them stay that much. I would cite the position of Sweden. I believe the current position of the Swedish Government is this. On balance, they would like the British to stay, but they are so fed up with the inability of the British to make up their mind about what they want that the main priority now is to prevent this whole Brexit mess from contaminating and polluting the EU. “We must put the position and the interest of the EU first, and safeguard it from this potential pollution from the British. We would like you to stay, but what matters are the tactics of making sure this deal is sorted out one way or the other quite soon”.
The Swedes had a little bit of sympathy for Macron on the length on the extension. They did not support him in the end but they had some sympathy for that reason. The prevalent view of most member states now is “get this sorted”, whether or not they want the British to stay. Many of them do not take strong views on that.
Stephen Kinnock: One of the arguments we hear from those who are campaigning for a second referendum or to revoke is that the United Kingdom could then be within the European Union, leading the reform of the European Union and leading a new strategic direction for the EU. Given the events we have seen since June 2016, how would you rate the chances of the UK remaining in the EU and leading reform?
Sir Jonathan Faull: There have been previous attempts to place the United Kingdom at the heart of Europe in a leading position, with mixed results. I do not say that sarcastically. The UK has had a profound impact on the politics and direction of the European Union. As I said earlier, as an awkward but constructive member state, it has done that and done it reasonably effectively.
If the things you describe, Mr Kinnock, came to pass and the United Kingdom somehow remained a member state, one constructive path for it to pursue would no doubt be to say, “We have learnt a great deal from the extraordinary process we have been through in this country, and have come to some conclusions or ideas about the way in which the European Union should change and operate differently”.
There may well be positive echoes from around Europe. We are not the only Eurosceptic country in Europe. We had perhaps the biggest cocktail of difficulties, resentments, misunderstandings and hostilities because of history, geography and all sorts of other things. But, if you take each individual ingredient in that cocktail, you will find other countries across Europe with similar concerns, so adroit leadership could indeed, in what I think are very unlikely circumstances, allow the United Kingdom to take something positive from this experience and help the European Union move forward.
Stephen Kinnock: Ms Brunner, I wonder if you agree with that. For example, let us take President Macron’s open letter, which he published in a range of newspapers, where he set out key directions for what he thinks about the reform of the European Union, which is very much about deepening EU integration, defending our liberty, protecting our continent and rediscovering the spirit of progress. Is it remotely realistic, given what we have seen from this country and in this country since 2016, that this country would somehow remain in the European Union and team up with President Macron to drive that reform agenda forward?
Larissa Brunner: Based on what we have seen since June 2016, to me, it would seem rather unlikely. Based on the past three years, it seems to me that the priorities of the UK would be elsewhere, for example on limiting free movement somehow. From Macron’s perspective and the perspective of many other member states, that would undermine the four freedoms and the integrity of the single market. It would seem to me that the priorities of the UK might be to explore more options for membership, and a concept of differentiated integration might come into play there: this idea that there should be something in between membership and non-membership, that there should be different models that allow countries to take part in some part of the EU architecture and not in others. To me, that would seem a more likely direction for the UK to focus its reform efforts on.
It is also worth saying that Macron’s proposals are quite controversial among a lot of EU member states. He has not quite got the reception that he may have hoped for, especially from Germany, which has been rather lukewarm. In the end, reform processes in the EU are very often slow steps. They are often driven by necessity and different crises. In a way, it is integration by accident or integration through crisis. You have a crisis and then you have to come up with a solution. Because it is sometimes easier and more effective to come up with an EU-wide solution than 27 or 28 national solutions, you go for the EU-wide solution and then you have integrated a bit further by accident.
That is quite often the way that EU integration functions. It usually does not function according to this grand master plan. I am not sure to what extent the UK, in moments of crisis, would be willing to support EU-wide solutions.
Stephen Kinnock: Thanks very much. Charles, I do not know if you want to add a final word to that.
Charles Grant: I would like to add a couple of points. I am a little more pessimistic than Sir Jonathan about Britain’s ability to lead a reform process in the EU, because Britain’s reputation, its soft power, has been so damaged. Whatever the outcome of the Brexit process, people just take Britain less seriously than they did. We would have to stand on the naughty step for a couple of years before we had as much influence as we used to have. In the past, we had a lot of influence on enlargement, trade issues, single market issues and foreign and defence policy, and in the long run we could have influence on those areas again, because the north European free-trading countries look to Britain for leadership on those areas. Because the British are leaving, the Dutch have set up a new alliance, a so called new Hanseatic League, to campaign for these issues in the absence of Britain.
Strangely, although Macron wants a more integrated Europe, we are an obvious ally for him in achieving some of his vision, because his fundamental view is that he wants this integration, variable geometry or concentric circles, as Larissa differentiated it. He wants the eurozone to integrate significantly and he thinks it cannot survive in a healthy way without a lot more centralisation of decision making, and he may be right for that reason. He also says that countries should not have to join the euro if they do not wish to. Let there be a second circle of countries in the single market with no commitment to join the euro, and then a third circle for countries such as Britain, Montenegro, Moldova and Macedonia, which want a close relationship with the EU but do not want to be full members.
If Britain decides to stay in the EU, we would be an ally for Macron in looking for that concentric circle model, with Britain not being obliged to join all the circles. He does not have a lot of allies in that at the moment. I think the Spanish and the Belgians are allies; the Germans are rather sceptical about it. The Poles and the Hungarians are strongly opposed because they think they would be made second-class citizens of the EU. Potentially, there could be a convergence of interest between the Macron vision and the British one, if it decided to stay in the EU.