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The illogic of the EU trying to keep the UK from leaving

Foolishly, I always took Groundhog Day to be a work of fiction, rather than an instruction manual. Every morning we wake up to the same debates between the same people, who still haven’t listened to (or, more accurately, haven’t heard) those who point out obstacles in the path: we just have to become better, through force of character, and it’ll be fine.

This is rather tiresome, especially I appear to lack the virtues needed for such Nietzschean Will to Power.

Yesterday brought a classic of the genre, which I caught while preparing tea: The EU is being difficult over the negotiations because it wants to keep the UK in the organisation. The desire not to make a mess in the kitchen meant I was neither able to catch the name of the man making that statement, nor to response there and then on social media (not that it would have made much difference).

Instead, I’m going to work through it here. Because it’s still annoying and still completely illogical a view to hold.

The argument being advanced runs something like this. The EU was shocked that anyone would ever want to leave, and can’t understand that the UK actually wants to do that, so now wants to throw many obstructions in our path, to demonstrate that we can never leave, not that we should want to anyway. Sort of Stockholm Syndrome at a continental level.

This sounds plausible because it fits with a more general model about the dubious motives behind European integration and the shadowy cabal that actually runs things: Faceless eurocrats sought to co-opt our own elites with promises of power and influence, out of the public gaze, but when our establishment failed to get through the referendum, the system had to preserve itself by any means necessary.

Several basic problems with this narrative present themselves.

Firstly, if the EU is so determined to stop states leaving, why allow a provision in the treaty that provides for exactly that possibility? The Article 50 clause was introduced in the Lisbon treaty as part of a more general overhaul of the basic framework of the organisation, not least to underline that membership is voluntary and contingent upon the on-going willingness of states to participate. To use the local analogy, just because you chose in the past to join, it doesn’t mean you can’t change your mind.

There’s not even an limitation on how a state decides it’s changed its mind: it does whatever it considers is needed to satisfy local constitutional requirements and the EU can’t do anything about that decision.

And this is the second problem. Once Article 50 is triggered, there is absolutely nothing the EU can do to stop a state leaving. A clock is started and if at the end of the period there’s no agreement on terms, then that doesn’t stop the state’s departure. It’s a pretty rubbish cabal that puts in place rules that deprive it of any power to stymie the loss of a member, especially when you consider that it’s one of the few International Organisations to have a specific exit clause, so they’ve obviously thought about the matter.

The only ways that the UK’s exit can be delayed past the current date of 31 October are either an extension to Article 50 – which needs the UK’s approval – or a revocation of Article 50 – which only the UK can do. There’s no delaying mechanism that the EU control alone, and none that doesn’t give power to the UK.

Ah, comes the response. The EU might not control the timeline, but it’s trying to scare the UK with talk of the problems of no-deal.

Well, maybe, but only up to a point. Not only does the EU worry about the impact of a no-deal outcome, but the vast majority of independent analysis also suggests this would be the most damaging economic and political outcome, for both sides. It places the EU-UK relationship into a very uncertain position and with some very bad mood music too.

But, importantly, it’s bad for both sides. The EU will suffer like the UK, albeit to a lesser extent. Failure to secure a negotiated outcome to Article 50 will reflect badly on all involved. given the fine words spoken since 24 June 2016. But that’s very different from not wanting Brexit to occur at all.

Consider a scenario where the UK doesn’t leave the EU. Either that’s because a government has made that decision, or because a referendum has made it for them: again, the choice has to be internal. Now think about the British political debate around this. Is everyone going to be happy with that? Will everyone accept this new decision?

Almost certainly not.

At present there’s no good reason to believe that the divisions that the 2016 vote exposed and reinforced will weaken, let alone disappear. Moreover, it’s not as if the years since 2015 will be forgotten.

And that’s a problem for the EU, because its most important decisions remain ones taken by unanimity: finances, planning, enlargement. Even on those matters decided by majority voting, having an unhappy and disruptive UK at the table is not the path to a more functional organisation.

The EU lives through and because of its member states: if those states can’t accept the compromises and constraints that membership brings, then this poisons the entire functioning of the Union, because membership also brings power and consequence to those states. The value of having another member always has to be balanced against the costs that brings.

To return to the this trope of an overly-possessive EU, it simply doesn’t stand up to any inspection, either in letting this situation arise in the first place, nor in a basic analysis of how the EU works as a body.

Not that this is likely to stop it getting repeated soon.


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