The Munich Security Conference has hardly ever been more necessary than in these turbulent times. Key actors of secu ...
15. October 2019
Great Britain must make up its mind
For centuries, British governments have looked sceptically at our mostly troubled, warlike continent. However, their concern was based on responsibility not rejection. Disraeli, Lloyd George or Churchill did not doubt for a second that European concerns are also British concerns. The political stability of the continent with its balance of power was for the British Prime Ministers matters in their own best interests. British Prime Ministers were prepared to assume more responsibility for and in Europe than many other European countries, as it was precisely Britain's continental influence that secured British importance in the world.
The current government line of "get out, whatever the cost" represents a clear break with British history. Although the British Isles will remain geographically and culturally part of Europe even after Britain's possible withdrawal from the EU, the UK's political influence will considerably decline. Boris Johnson is still unable to clearly explain how he intends to shape Britain's relationship with Europe. The incumbent prime minister reduces this crucial point to an electoral moment: major Brexit plans are no longer discussed in Parliament but at party meetings, ministers are downgraded to recipients of orders, highly-decorated party members are removed from the ballot paper, and dissenters are covered with curses. Boris Johnson replaces foresight with actionism. Europe should neither be impressed nor infected by this.
With Brexit there is more at stake than just the future of the British economy. Britain's departure will undoubtedly change the European Union. The remaining 27 Member States will not simply be able to replace Britain’s historical position in Europe, its economic and military strength, or its cultural and scientific wealth. The breakup will be painful. But this loss should not lead us to undermining the sense of community between the other members. A separation between the EU and Great Britain can politically and rationally only be absorbed to a limited extent. The Brexiteers are right on one point: there cannot really be a good deal. But this is only true because Britain's departure from Europe is simply a historically irresponsible mistake. What Napoleon had once hoped for his British enemies, Johnson is now doing all by himself: Britain says goodbye to its prominent role in Europe. Even 1211 days after the referendum, the Brexit makes no political, economic, security or historical sense. The Brexit campaign was largely based on prejudice and fed with a great deal of misinformation. A lasting success of populism would harm everyone now.
As a legal community, it is extremely difficult for the European Union to imagine how Great Britain should leave without a withdrawal treaty. After all, the EU's common rules are not primarily bureaucratic rules, but rather the brackets of common coexistence, the basis for standing up for one another and the framework for common economic activity. Common rules were the starting point for the longest period of peace and prosperity in the history of Europe. Therefore, a no deal in its absence of rules is poison for a good future in Europe, and no one in the rest of Europe can be satisfied if Britain is worse off than the rest. We Europeans have been overcoming such trench warfare thinking for decades. Everyone in the EU therefore wants to prevent the negative scenario of a no deal as far as possible. But we have to accept it: it's not just in our hands. The Brits must decide for themselves what relationship they want to enter into with the EU in the future. But such a decision must also take into account the future of the EU, otherwise we will never be able to get to an agreement. Even a withdrawal agreement must not turn the rules of the EU upside down.
But the existence or not of a withdrawal agreement does not only decide on the chances for electoral success in the forthcoming British general elections, but - much more decisively - it also defines the future self-conception of the EU. As a legal community, the EU is accustomed to making compromises, reaching future-oriented agreements and searching for common solutions. This EU-approach is the opposite of political poker games. But the existence of the EU is not based on its political style, but on its values. The basic convictions of the EU are therefore not negotiable. Without our values of standing up for freedom and solidarity, as well as giving equal rights to every EU citizen, there would be no EU in the long run. The uncompromising defence of the four fundamental freedoms is therefore neither a matter of stubbornness nor of targeted punishment, but simply stems from the EU's desire to preserve itself. The EU cannot accept the fragmentation of the Internal Market geographically or by sectors, nor can it divide its citizens into first- and second-class citizens. Our economic model is not "Singapore" or any dog-eat-dog capitalism. It is based on a social market economy with clear regulatory guidelines that apply equally to everyone. Those who do not accept this principle simply cannot participate in the internal market because otherwise the European community of values would have no future.
The same applies to solidarity within the EU. The EU will not and cannot make compromises with third parties at the expense of individual Member States. This applies to Russia with regard to the Baltic States and Poland, to Turkey with regard to Bulgaria and Greece and also to the new third country Great Britain with regard to Ireland. The EU can never agree to setting up a hard internal border that would divide Ireland.
Finally, a community of values and a legal community is a community. Members who unequivocally commit themselves to our principles must have special rights and therefore benefits. A member must always be better off than a non-member. The obligations and rights of the EU are a package and not a shopping basket. You cannot just pick them out individually, because they depend on each other. There cannot and should not be any cherry-picking for Great Britain either. The European Parliament will never approve a withdrawal treaty that tramples on the EU's community of law and values. The foundations of the EU are non-negotiable. It is now up to Britain to return to a responsible policy towards Europe. The EU's hand remains stretched out, but we expect the Brits to respect our principles - be it as a part, as a close friend or as a mere partner of the EU.
Op-ed of Manfred Weber, published in German daily “Die WELT”, on 15 October 2019