The European Parliament’s appalling resolution on Brexit

It is regrettable that Britain voted to leave the EU, and it is regrettable that the British government neither looked for, nor found, a way of convincing the populace that it would be better to remain. Now that the Brexit process has started, it is increasingly clear that this will become a nasty divorce. Possibly a very nasty one.

There is an apparent lack of statesmanship on both sides of the English Channel. On the British side, this has become visible in David Cameron’s decision, solely in order to solve a problem within the Tory party, to hold the ill-considered referendum, and in Theresa May’s lamentable failure to develop a convincing idea of how a post-Brexit UK would look like. As a result the UK apparently enters the upcoming negotiations without any discernible and realistic strategy as to what it wants to achieve and how it might achieve it. This is a recipe for disaster.

But on the side of the remaining EU, the situation is hardly better. To be sure, the EU is in a far stronger negotiating position both legally and politically. But it is a lose-lose situation: the UK will be hurt more badly, but also the EU will be badly hurt – and in the long run the bruises suffered from Brexit could be mortal even for the EU itself.

Against this backdrop, it is deeply regrettable that the European Parliament, in what apparently is an attempt to posture as the grail-keepers of “European values”, has adopted a resolution on Brexit that exhibts a spirit of unconstructive, petty vengefulness towards the UK. The overarching message is: Britain must be punished for leaving the EU; after leaving the Union it must be worse off than before, so as to discourage other Member States from leaving. Is it really impossible to enter this process in a more constructive mode? It is true that, it being a lose-lose situation (as we say above), this separation is unlikely to result in an outcome in which both sides will be better off than before – but should one not at least try to make an attempt at damage control? And would it not be befitting for the European Parliament tor call for an effort to seek a solution that at least minimises the forseeable damages for both sides, the EU and the UK?

Yes, it is true that EU membership entails both rights and obligations, and that it is impossible for the UK, as for any other country, to enjoy the rights without assuming the obligations. But beyond that, the resolution contains several statements that are flat-out wrong.

For example:

“…an agreement on a future relationship between the European Union and the United Kingdom as a third country can only be concluded once the United Kingdom has withdrawn from the European Union.”

No. Such an agreement could enter into force only after the UK has left the EU – but it could be negotiated and concluded already between now and then.

“…the United Kingdom must honour all its legal, financial and budgetary obligations, including commitments under the current multiannual financial framework, falling due up to and after the date of its withdrawal”

Not exactly. This is in fact a negotiable. There are of course some obligations that the UK must undoubtedly honour (for example its contribution to the pensions of EU officials who during more than fourty years have worked inter alia on behalf, and in the interest, of the UK), but there are other areas in which the UK’s contribution might with good reason be made dependent on its potential ability to draw benefit from the joint activities that are being financed (e.g. the Joint Research Policy, the Common Agricultural Policy,  or the Cohesion Funds).

“…whatever the outcome of the negotiations on the future European Union-United Kingdom relationship, they cannot involve any trade-off between internal and external security including defence cooperation, on the one hand, and the future economic relationship, on the other hand”

This sounds rather naive. Its capabilities in the areas of security, defence, and intelligence are the UK’s biggest remaining asset in the upcoming negotiations. Of course the UK will use it as best it can.

“…it would be contrary to Union law for the United Kingdom to begin, in advance of its withdrawal, negotiations on possible trade agreements with third countries”

This statement is qustionable from a legal point of view, and extremely harsh as a political stance. The truth is that such trade agreements with third countries could certainly not enter into force before the day on which the UK leaves the EU – but it is in any case completely unrealistic that any such agreement could be negotiated and concluded within such a short time. But what is wrong about beginning such negotiations? Ultimately, the UK will urgently need such agreements in order to continue trading with third countries, and those third countries will anyway try to use the position of weakness into which Britain has manoevered itself; yet it is in the EU’s own interest that Britain, which will continue being its closest neighbour and one of its most important trading partners, will not simply fall off a cliff. Rather than preventing such negotiations, the EU should encourage them.

Whatever the outcome of the process, the UK will remain the EU’s neighbour. And however Brexist will weaken Britain, the EU certainly does not need an enemy in the West. Somewhat more graciousness would be befitting –  but this resolution reveals the pettiness of those  who have drafted it.