1 March 2019

For the EU elite, Brexit is a chance to further their own ambitions


Brexit is now officially less than one month away – at least in theory. Over the last days, much drama has occurred, but, as so often over the last two years, little has actually changed. As Alex Massie wrote here a few days ago, if the government does not find a way in the next two weeks to pass the Withdrawal Agreement through Parliament, Britain will either slither into a No Deal Brexit, agree to an extension of Article 50, or possibly call a second referendum – an outcome that has become a little more likely with Labour’s recent change of position.

While the British side has garnered almost all of the attention – and blame, over the last few years, little attention has been giving to the opposite side of the negotiating table. Indeed, Brussels has often been completely left out of the discussion and been seen more as a neutral observer. This is strange, considering a negotiation always needs multiple negotiations and Europe has much to lose from an disordered Brexit.

For the most part, the refusal of the EU to change their stances has been put down to two factors: first, the need to ensure the integrity of the European project by not letting the UK “cherry pick” on demands and obligations. Second, and more legitiamte, the fact the UK has not made clear what kind of relationship it actually wants after

Eurosceptics have tended to focus on the idea that Brussels wants to punish Britain for daring to leave their fabulous project. Certainly, letting the UK make a success of Brexit would raise question marks about just how fabulous that project is, and some worry it could push other member states towards the exit. The punishment narrative is not just Brexiteer fantasy – after all, the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier has said the aim of the negotiations is “to teach people what leaving the single market means.”

A factor that has gone largely unremarked in the UK-centric Brexit narrative is how senior EU figures are using the negotiations to further their own political ambitions. This is a big year for the EU – there are European Parliament elections, a new Commission, all amid what some dramatically proclaim is a “battle for the future of Europe” between liberal pluralists and national populists.  Some of those at the forefront of the Brexit negotiations see an opportunity to cement their legacy as they step down this summer. Others want to use it to find their next job.

Take Jean-Claude Juncker.   For the outgoing Commssion president, looking like a winner in the Brexit negotiations is key to cement his legacy. He has been trying for the last year to show how successful his time at the helm has been. It’s often been a hard sell – after all, his Commission is the first in EU history to see a member state leave the project.

As Andrew Stuttaford recently wrote for the National Review, “although he can boast of some technocratic achievements – such as this year’s trade deal with Japan – his political record, scarred by that rising populist challenge and, above all, Brexit, contains little to brag about”. “Winning Brexit” – and in Juncker’s case it really is a zero-sum game,represents a last chance for the Luxemburger to seal a positive place in the history books.

Others are looking to shore up their position or find a better job. European Council president Donald Tusk , who made headlines recently by saying that Brexiteers would have “a special place in hell”, is stepping down this year, too. Some reports suggest, he could be looking to a return to domestic politics to challenge the current Polish government. For him, one showdown with the forces of so-called populism would demonstrate his suitability to tackle the same political movement in his  home country.

Martin Selmayr, the ‘Beast of Berlaymont’, has become a much bigger force in the Brexit negotiations than anyone thought, as Pieter Cleppe recently showed. His rapid ascent to the position of the Commission’s Secretary General is still under the spotlight. Earlier this month, the EU’s ombudsman ruled that “Selmayr’s appointment did not follow EU law, in letter or spirit, and did not follow the Commission’s own rules.”  While Selmayr’s position looks safe despite the controversy, he reportedly already has an eye on a new challenge: becoming the EU’s first ambassador to the UK. Whether diplomacy is his forte is certainly up for debate.

Then there is Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s lead Brexit negotiator. The Belgian has carved out a niche for himself as a federalist firebrand, spouting just the kind of populist rhetoric he claims to despise. His Brexit strategy – including telling David Davis “welcome to Hell” for example – has been no different.

For someone who has never held high office in the EU, his influence has been out of all proportion.  Not that he hasn’t tried: in 2004, he wanted to become Commission President, but Tony Blair vetoed it. In 2014, he tried a second time, to no avail. In 2016, he wanted to become Parliament President and even tried to bring Italy’s Five Star Movement into his group to gain their votes – and failed yet again. 2019 might be his last chance to land a top job. In that context his overblown language towards the UK, including suggesting that Brexiteers could “end up on the guillotine”, looks very much like an attempt to thrust himself into the limelight.

Finally, there is Barnier, who has an eye on the biggest job of all, succeeding Juncker. Though Barnier will not even  be on the ballot in May, he is in third place on betting markets behind the two current candidates, Manfred Weber and Frans Timmermans. Barnier could yet emerge as the compromise candidate – Weber is seen by many as too rightwing, and his European People’s Party will certainly need the support of other groups to have a majority. Barnier, also belongs to the EPP, but is much more popular among the political elites. Making good on his promises to stick it to Britain will surely stand him in good stead among Europe’s power brokers.

All this jockeying for position is deeply unfortunate: after all, Brexit is only a zero-sum game in the eyes of the politicians. Others see clearly the chance for a mutually beneficial agreement, which could ensure a smooth transition and promote prosperity on both sides of the Channel.

From the European side, the last best hope is that sensible national leaders will let the Brussels elite know that their careers are not the priority in these negotiations.

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Kai Weiss is a Research and Outreach Officer at the Austrian Economics Center and a board member at the Hayek Institute.