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Brexit ball is in EU’s court
We’ve entered the Brexit endgame.
Deal or no deal, the United Kingdom will leave the European Union on October 31 — or so British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has repeated day in, day out since he moved into No. 10 Downing Street.
The effects of Britain’s exit will be largely negative — from welfare to the economy, jobs and investment. That will be especially true in a no-deal scenario, which would massively increase uncertainty and strengthen the recessionary forces already clearly visible in European and British economies.
This trajectory may yet be averted in the short term: Either by a law passed in the U.K. parliament to prevent Johnson's government pursuing no deal, or by the hiatus provided by a general election.
But the positions that have led to this impasse are likely to remain fixed. Both Johnson — by insisting that the so-called Brexit backstop be axed from the Withdrawal Agreement — and the EU — by insisting it will not change a single word in the agreement it negotiated with Theresa May — are increasing the likelihood of a messy exit.
This game of chicken will benefit no one in the long run.
We have a limited window of opportunity to avert a disaster and shouldn’t assume the U.K. government will come up with a credible solution in the little time it has left. The EU and European governments should take the initiative.
Both sides are keen to blame the other for the current impasse, but the truth is that both are responsible. The ball is as much in our court as it is in theirs.
To be sure, London didn’t make things easy. After the shock result of the 2016 Brexit vote, the British government got stuck in an institutional paralysis and was unable to come up with a coherent Brexit strategy that could achieve a majority in parliament. Despite Theresa May’s endless, often quite humiliating, pilgrimages to Brussels, the British political elite lost itself, and its country’s destiny, in aimless infighting and unproductive short-term tactical games. Few people, if anyone, seemed to grasp the seriousness of what was at stake.
But it would be too easy to blame London for the tragedy unfolding now.
Countless times during my tenure as Belgium’s finance minister between 2014 and 2018, I heard officials talk of wanting to “punish the Brits.” Other countries toying with the idea of leaving the EU should be dissuaded from following in the U.K.’s footsteps, the thinking went.
Some government spokespeople were more explicit about this than others. Some of them even gave the impression they found a kind of cynical pleasure in this form of punishment. Getting rid of the contrarian British and giving them a firm kick in the butt, they felt, would be killing two birds with one stone.
While European officials also certainly made honest efforts to come to a good compromise with their British counterparts, this desire to make an example of the Brits was palpable in the positions taken by EU negotiators. And now this behavior is coming back at us like a boomerang.
The EU could never have made up for the U.K. government’s unpreparedness and its frivolous approach to these negotiations. But it could have been more open to creative solutions to solve disagreements on key points such as the backstop.
No deal is not only a bad outcome for the U.K., it will also have deeply negative effects for the EU, and especially for countries with strong trade and investment ties to the U.K. such as Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark.
But what is most tragic about this turn of events is that it will ultimately be the citizens of the U.K. and the EU who pay the price of our collective political failure to come up with a reasonable deal.
Given the circumstances and the potential consequences, it’s now in everyone’s interest to find a constructive way forward — and it wouldn’t hurt the EU to go the extra mile and show some leniency at this crucial time.
Sometimes politics demands being tough as nails. Other times, it’s far more constructive to take a more moderate stance and seek out a compromise.
And when it comes to Brexit, the EU should be ready to take the latter route.
The world is uncertain enough already. Avoiding a no-deal Brexit will save Europe from a great deal of pain in the long term.
Opinion piece by European Member of Parliament Johan Van Overtveldt, published on 23 August on www.politico.eu.