Thursday 22 August 2019

Paddy Agnew: ''Just do it': EU patience is running out with a partner who can't find the exit'

It's a case of 'au revoir' and 'auf wiedersehen'. The time may have come for the UK to go

POINTS OF DEPARTURE: Former Italian Minister for European Affairs Sandro Gozi. Photo: Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
POINTS OF DEPARTURE: Former Italian Minister for European Affairs Sandro Gozi. Photo: Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Paddy Agnew

If there was a time when a majority of EU public opinion regretted the British decision to leave the European Union, that time has probably gone. That is, at least according to former Italian Minister for European Affairs, Sandro Gozi.

"This (Brexit) is a big decision but the decision has been taken... The mood of EU public opinion is, look, you (the UK) have decided, so just do it, get on with it... That's why it is in nobody's interest to give Britain any more time.

"What surprises me is that there are people in some European capitals who still think that they can reverse it... In that context, the EU has to be very careful not to be seen as an organisation that wants to get around the clear will of the British people. This is something that they have some problems understanding, in Berlin and Brussels."

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Gozi knows what he is talking about. He is nothing if not a convinced "europeista", certainly not a Brexit enthusiast. A former student at the prestigious "SciencesPo" Institute of Political Studies in Paris, Gozi worked in the European Commission in Brussels for 10 years, at one point serving in the cabinet of commission president, twice Italian prime minister Romano Prodi.

Gozi, who served in the Partito Democratico government led by Matteo Renzi, lost his parliamentary seat in last year's general elections. Recently, he found himself at the centre of polemics after he announced that he had accepted a role as European affairs adviser in the office of French prime minister Edouard Philippe.

Political opponents branded him a "traitor", even suggesting that he should be stripped of his Italian citizenship. Gozi calmly replied by pointing out that a European citizen cannot be deprived of citizenship for political reasons nor can he/she be prevented from working for another administration.

As for Brexit, he agrees that a No Deal outcome is now "more and more likely", adding: "I think the important thing now is not to make the mistake that Merkel and Tusk made last April, which was to give more time to the UK. We shouldn't make that mistake again...

"If they had insisted with (prime minister) May that the UK had to be out by June 30, that might have made it possible for her to get the withdrawal agreement though parliament..."

Interestingly, Gozi also thinks that Ireland, and in particular Taioseach Leo Varadkar, did not play their cards well last spring, adding: "I think... Varadakar panicked. I understand your situation, I understand Varadkar's concern but I think that (president) Macron was right when he said that Varadkar was wrong to have encouraged the EU to give the UK more time."

Gozi argues that everybody, Ireland included, has now got to prepare for a no-deal Brexit, obviously working hard "to limit the negative impact on the Irish border... and on the Good Friday agreement".

Yet, how do you do that?

A policy contribution written last January for the German Bundestag's EU Committee by the Brussels-based economic think tank, Bruegel, underlines the fundamental "Catch-22" of Brexit, stating: "Paradoxically, while the main political motivation for the UK parliament to reject the withdrawal agreement might be the so-called backstop, a no-deal Brexit will lead to (the very) customs controls in Ireland that the backstop aims to prevent. Customs controls would be inevitable in a no-deal Brexit if the EU wants to preserve the integrity of its single market."

That Bruegel report admits freely that the "situation on the island of Ireland" is "one of the most difficult and contentious items of the Brexit negotiations", acknowledging that a hard border could provoke renewed violence. Intriguingly, it suggests that the EU attempts to win itself some leverage by increasing "the cost to the UK of a no-deal Brexit (within ethical limits)" while showing some flexibility over the Political Declaration and the Withdrawal Agreement itself.

Sandro Gozi argues, however, that any attempt to up the ante with the UK, increasing costs, however, would be pure folly, saying: "I think this is a very bad approach... Most of us in Europe regret Brexit and the British choice but we must respect it and if you respect the democratic will of the people, you don't do so by trying to increase the cost for Britain..."

Maarten Van Aalderen, Rome correspondent for the Dutch daily De Telegraaf, shares Gozi's sense of regret, telling the Sunday Independent: "This is a loose, loose, loose situation... The vast majority of Dutch public opinion was disappointed by Brexit, both for trade and cultural reasons. Many Dutch felt very sympathetic to the UK, seeing the English as an important counter-balance to a Franco-German dominated EU...

"But sadly, it seems that the only way out is a no-deal exit, Mr Johnson seems to have played himself into a corner and this will cost us all, even if it will almost certainly cost the UK much more than their EU partners."

Many EU observers are inevitably agreed on one thing. Namely that Britain has made a total bags of its EU exit negotiations.

Sandro Gozi puts it this way: "When I say I respect the British decision on Brexit, I also imply that they have to bear the responsibility for what they have decided... And if now, they are not ready, three years after taking that decision, this is very bad for the UK... but the EU can do nothing about that, I'm sorry..."

Tobias Pilar of the German financial daily die Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), also expresses his regrets:

"You know, I am an ex-London School of Economics student, a bit of an Anglophile. After the original referendum vote, I thought we should work out every possible way to vote again, to turn it around... But after all that has happened since, I am fed up with Brexit...

"We simply cannot have an England which wants to keep us all hanging around, continually looking for new conditions and with Boris Johnson, this would just get worse. It's time for the UK to take a reality check."

Pilar points out the "curious" consideration that many British politicians and commentators regularly refer to "the negotiations with Brussels", without ever seeming to take on board that those same negotiations require the agreement of 27 countries, all of which have a right of veto.

Which, in itself, is a good reason not to re-open the negotiations.

Like the Bundestag report, Pilar points to the fundamental paradox (duplicity?) of Brexiteer thinking in relation to Northern Ireland:

"The English always want to have their cake and eat it... They want to keep a backdoor to the single market open in Northern Ireland and at the same time they say that you do not need a hard border. This is an obvious contradiction..."

Not surprisingly, the Bruegel report pays much attention to the UK threat, recently revived by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, not to pay the Brexit "Divorce" bill, estimated at €45-50 billion, concluding: "I would recommend to the EU and the Bundestag to refuse to make concessions on emergency measures in the absence of a substantial financial contribution from the UK".

Clearly, much blood has still to flow under the bridge. Tobias Pilar suggests that a few months ago, a no-deal would have been utterly traumatic. Now, he argues, the business community is better prepared. Wishful thinking?

In the end, too, most experts estimate that the economic fall-out will be much higher for the UK, than for the EU.

Tobis Pilar puts it this way: "The EU exports much less to the UK than the UK exports to the EU. So who is going to have the biggest problem?"

In the end, the EU catchcry might well read - we regret that you are going but please hurry up, let us have done with you and, in the name of God, man, go.

Sunday Independent

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