Stopping the clock For Europe’s sake, let’s keep talking to stave off a hard Brexit

The EU should be ready to make more concessions to the UK and to allow more time for negotiations, writes Germany’s former foreign minister.

Whether soft or hard, Brexit will weaken us all. The United Kingdom will doubtless suffer major economic turmoil. It’s also true that the British have withstood bigger crises and will overcome this economic crisis sooner or later. But it’s by no means assured that Europe will survive Britain’s departure.

Of course, the European Union won’t break apart. And of course, Europe too can cope with the economic disadvantages of Brexit. But Europe’s role in the world will be damaged in a way we can’t yet imagine. We’re getting a little foretaste in Washington, where the US government wants to downgrade the EU’s diplomatic status.

It heralds the end of the specialness of the trans-Atlantic relationship. That started long before Donald Trump, by the way. It was President Barack Obama who spoke of the US as a Pacific nation. All his predecessors described their country as a “trans-Atlantic nation.”

The political and economic axes of power are shifting from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The world of tomorrow will be a G-2 world with the US and China vying against each other. The British will come to realize that when they leave the EU. In truth we Europeans — the EU and the British together — face the question of whether and how we can preserve our sovereignty between these two new axes of power.

How will we Europeans manage to live how we WANT to and not how others deem appropriate for us? This is about European sovereignty because the member states alone, even big Germany, will have no clout whatsoever in tomorrow’s world.

Europe is rich but mostly irrelevant

Europe already doesn’t have much say in the world. With the exception of climate policy, we’re on the sidelines in all big global political conflicts: in the looming nuclear arms race as well as the military conflicts in the Middle East, in Syria, Iraq or Yemen. Even the rebels against Assad who claim to be fighting for values of democracy and freedom are responding to the US withdrawal from Syria not by turning to us Europeans, but to Moscow and Turkey.

That’s because those two nations are the only ones that still project power in the region. Europe is seen as rich but as irrelevant in political, strategic and especially military terms. When the British leave the EU, the view of us Europeans will become even more dismissive. It will be pointless for us to espouse our European values globally if the rest of the world has the impression Europe is too divided to even formulate its common interests.

The UK isn’t just any country. It’s a nation with a huge international reputation, with an international diplomatic network that has evolved over centuries, an economic powerhouse within the EU – and a nuclear power to boot. We’ll miss the British more in political and strategic terms than economically. And culturally too, because an EU without the British, but with soon-to-be-members Serbia, Albania or Kosovo won’t just be a different one in numerical terms.

This is why we Europeans, not just the British, should keep seeking compromises in the remaining weeks until the end of March and perhaps beyond. It’s true that seems almost impossible now because the the positions held by everyone involved are irreconcilable.

What is to be done? It may be right to shrug that the British have maneuvered themselves into this situation through the foolish and arrogant actions of their political class – but that doesn’t help us. The advice can only be to use all levers to reach a solution that keeps the UK as close as possible to the EU.

The agreement for a “soft Brexit” that has been presented at least gives us a chance to make that happen. To help it get the necessary majority, everyone in Europe should be saying: What’s happening in London affects us all and that’s why we’re getting involved. It is primarily a political decision by the British, but has far-reaching consequences for everyone else in Europe.

Europe's Social Democrats must talk to Britain's Labour opposition and their chairman, Jeremy Corbyn. The message of Europe’s Social Democrats must be: country and Europe first, the party second.

The German conservatives and liberals must join with French President Macron to address Ireland, because Ireland too will have to rationally consider whether a hard Brexit won't end up producing exactly what the so-called “backstop” is meant to prevent: a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, and a return to violence.

European elections shouldn’t be an obstacle

And all of us in Europe must ask: Are there other options that would give Britain greater confidence that a successor treaty can be reached that is truly acceptable to both sides, and that no one will be permanently held hostage? Can we make new concessions to the British on the free movement of people?

It’s not just the British. German mayors would also welcome more instruments to make them better able to prevent the unjustified migration into welfare systems. The free movement of people doesn’t mean that this free movement can’t be managed.

Sigmar Gabriel is a Social Democrat lawmaker in the Bundestag, and Germany’s former foreign minister and vice-chancellor. Quelle: imago/photothek

Sigmar Gabriel is a Social Democrat lawmaker in the Bundestag, and Germany’s former foreign minister and vice-chancellor.

(Source: imago/photothek)

Even if the vote in the House of Commons doesn’t produce a majority, that doesn’t mean that we can’t keep on negotiating up to the end of March. From the EU’s point of view, it should be possible to extend the decision deadline if the British need more time.

It wouldn’t be the first time the clock got stopped  in international negotiations. The date of the European elections shouldn’t be an surmountable obstacle for that. There simply is too much at stake.

The time of technical consultations is over. They were successful and everyone involve deserves thanks for their effort and pension. But now the time of politics and political imagination has started. It’s only just begun. Everyone should use it, even if the prospects of success admittedly look limited.

This article appeared in Tagesspiegel, a sister publication of Handelsblatt. To contact the author: [email protected]