After Brexit, who will be the British of the EU?

  31 January 2020    Read: 1601
 After Brexit, who will be the British of the EU?

Britain was an awkward member of the eu. It joined late, complained lots and has now become the only country ever to leave. Yet beneath the cantankerous caricature, Britain played a useful role. It championed a liberal vision of the eu and was a bulwark against dirigisme.

British diplomats gummed up projects of which they were sceptical, such as a common defence policy, and accelerated those which they supported, such as the single market. Contrary to its self-image, Britain rarely stood alone in the eu. Britain was the noisiest advocate of policies that are commonly (but quietly) held across many member-states. Even with the Brits outside the bloc, those views will still be there. But the messengers will change. Who will they be? Welcome to the Brit awards, where your columnist will name the New Brits.

Sorting through the contenders is no easy job. There are so many. Take the eu’s budget negotiations, which will come to a head this year. Britain was far from alone in its determination to curb eu spending. Rebates, whereby some countries receive back a chunk of what they put in, loom largest in British Eurosceptic lore, but other countries have secured them, too. A proposal in 2018 to do away with the cash carousel led to howls in Dutch, German, Swedish and Danish. Britain had exactly the same policy goals as other net contributor countries; it just had the loudest voice. Since then, Austria, Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands have teamed up to turn up the volume. This skinflint foursome proudly refer to themselves as the Frugal Four. Any one of them could take the New Brit award for best Brussels belt-tightener.

Discomfort about the idea of the eu as a military power goes well beyond London. Germany does not want anyone to think it is throwing its weight around. On many issues, it prefers to remain in the back seat; when it comes to defence, it climbs into the boot. Any proposal that undercuts nato’s role as Europe’s defender makes German diplomats sweat; never mind their peers in the Baltic states, for whom nato is the only thing that keeps Russian tanks at bay. Poland is even touchier. It has greeted attempts to forge a more European defence strategy by embedding itself ever deeper into America’s military nexus, slyly suggesting that a garrison on Polish soil could be called “Fort Trump”. Poland easily wins the New Brit award for defending the status quo on defence.

Beyond a few holdouts in the European Parliament, European federalism, the bête noire of British Eurosceptics from the moment Britain joined, has died a quiet death. eu wallahs may busy themselves with plans for a grand-sounding conference on the future of Europe later this year. But it will be a far cry from the constitutional convention of 2001-3, at which former French presidents and other grandees cooked up a European constitution (which was then rudely rejected by French and Dutch voters). Any suggestion of a similar effort this time round makes diplomats choke. Referendums, they have noticed, can be disruptive. The New Brit award for dreading federalism goes to everyone.

Liberal member-states have already clubbed together in the face of a more state-centric approach to the economy advocated most prominently by France. Dubbing themselves the New Hanseatic League, ministers from the Baltics, the Nordics, Ireland and the Netherlands now meet regularly to stave off statism (the Germans occasionally show up, too). Brexit has shaken the Dutch out of their political dysmorphia, in which the euro zone’s fifth-biggest economy tended to behave as if it were the size of Malta. As the de facto leader of the new league, the Netherlands wins the New Brit award for defending free markets from the French.

A Utopian fantasy still exists in some quarters that an eu without Britain will be more coherent. As the largest country outside the euro and the Schengen passport-free travel zone, Britain did stick out. But the eu will hardly be one-size-fits-all, even with the biggest constitutional kink ironed out. Denmark has opt-outs from the euro and justice and home-affairs policies. Ireland is not a member of the passport-free Schengen zone and has a common law legal system, unlike the civil law in the rest of the bloc. Special treatment abounds even when not written into law. Iron rules on fiscal discipline seem curiously flexible whenever France is involved. Visegrad countries (Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic) created their own opt-outs on migration policy by simply ignoring laws. Technically all countries bar Denmark are obliged to join the euro. Yet Sweden seems in no rush. Poland is five years from joining the common currency—and always will be, goes the saying. The eu will remain a constitutional camel rather than a thoroughbred even without Britain.

And the big winner is…

The fact that the Brit awards attract so many entries suggests that Britain was not such an odd man out. Once Britain has left, the eu will still have a rain-sodden, low-tax, English-speaking island in the north-west: Ireland. It will still host a former imperial power with a tendency to write geopolitical cheques it cannot honour: France. Likewise, anyone who thinks Britain was the only country with a morbid determination to bring up the second world war should glance at Polish politics. Perhaps Britain was a normal eu country after all.

Still, there can only be one overall winner. The Netherlands would be an obvious choice, given the similar policies of the British and Dutch governments. But the Dutch sit happily in the euro zone, as the Brits never would. Poland, like Britain, is outside the euro and recoils from European defence integration. Britain, however, was generally a constructive partner in the eu, which cannot be said of the current Polish government. This leaves one candidate. Liberal on trade, yet miserly when it comes to the eu’s budget, this country also enjoys opt-outs on a Britannic scale. Congratulations, Denmark! It is a long time since Danes ruled half of England, but the two nations have much in common. 

 

This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition of the Economist under the headline "After Brexit, who will be the British of the EU?"


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