How will the EU cope without Britain?

Theresa May

Theresa May and The President of the European Council,
Donald Tusk (Photo: Getty)

Many EU officials would like to present the Brexit negotiations as a case of one nervous member, weak at the knees, appearing before a menacing and united panel of 27. But that ignores the political and ideological rifts which are already apparent in the EU. Britain’s departure not only necessitates the creation of a new relationship between us and them; it fundamentally shifts the balance in EU politics. As Angela Merkel has been worrying aloud in recent weeks, the northern European countries which have always tended to take a liberal position on economics and trade are going to have a harder job fighting off the protectionist instincts of the south.

Far from the UK turning its back on the outside world, the growing likelihood is that it is the EU which will retreat into its economic shell while Britain’s economy becomes even more open.

Europe’s wonderful diversity became the EU’s biggest problem as it tried to establish a common position for nations that see the world differently. For years, Britain would side with the Scandinavians, Polish, Irish and Dutch to promote an open Europe, keen to cut new trade deals. The French would lead a protectionist bloc terrified about Chinese shoemakers or Australian sugar farmers. The world is changing. The EU stops its member states changing with it.

Britain’s influence tilted the EU in favour of free trade. With our departure, the southern countries will find it easier to push through initiatives to prop up uncompetitive industries. Merkel realises this, which is why she is trying to bolster support for free-market economics within the EU. Meetings have been held with leaders of other northern European states. Ann Linde, Sweden’s EU minister, has spoken of having to become ‘mildly aggressive’ in the battle for open trade now that it is losing its ‘closest ally’ in the EU.

For Theresa May and her negotiating team, the battle for the soul of the new EU presents both a threat and an opportunity. It’s a threat because if the protectionist bloc has its way it will become more difficult for any country — Britain included — to do a trade deal with the EU. But there is an opportunity, too, in exploiting the ideological divisions.

 

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