by Frank Schnittger
Fri Dec 16th, 2016 at 03:00:19 AM EST
Irish TV news showed a clip of EU leaders gathering for their last summit of 2016 yesterday. All were busily chatting to one another - except one: Teresa May stood there awkwardly, looking for someone to talk to, but everyone had their backs turned to her.
I very much doubt that the move was choreographed. EU leaders wouldn't be so petty, would they? But the scene encapsulated a feeling that I have had for some time: The Brexit negotiations are going to be bloody, and more likely than not will lead to no substantial agreement at all.
British politicians never tire of saying that a "good Brexit agreement" is in the interests of all, and there is no doubt that a failure to reach some kind of agreement will damage the economy of the whole of the EU, even if it effects the UK (and Ireland) most severely.
But what British politicians and commentators appear to be missing is the depth of anger which Brexit has engendered within the EU, and particularly within the EU elite. What if the EU elite feel their project is in existential danger, and that almost any agreement which allows the UK to retain substantial benefits from the EU outside of the EU is seen as a mortal threat to the stability of the EU project as a whole?
With Italian opposition parties all supporting an exit from the Euro and Catalan separatism growing apace, it is not difficult to see why they would feel anxious. But it is the growth of hard right nationalist movements in most EU member states which is threatening the hegemony of centre right and left parties in Europe. Anything which gives aid and comfort to those forces must be resisted at all costs.
The United Kingdom never really saw the EU as anything other than a "Common Market" and resisted all moves towards further integration. It joined the EU for economic advantage, not to contribute to the project as a whole. However the EU project always saw economic integration as merely a means to an end - not an end in itself - and the ultimate objective; the maintenance of peace and stability in Europe - has never seemed more fragile.
Donald Trump is threatening the whole architecture of the post World War II world order - threatening to defund Nato and build much closer relationships with Putin's Russia. His "America first" policies threaten to relegate former allies to bit part players at best. Ironically, the UK, which has always seen itself as having a "special relationship" with Washington, could be the major casualty. Trump saw fit to meet Nigel Farage in Trump tower before he had met with any other foreign leader following his election. His suggestion that Farage would make an excellent UK ambassador to the US showed scant respect for the prerogatives of May's government in London.
And that may be part of a more general problem for May and her Government: no one seems to take them and their concerns very seriously. May's own pronouncements since gaining the Prime Ministership - whilst perhaps necessary to placate the triumphant Leave campaigners in Tory ranks - have been spectacularly tone deaf from a European perspective. The whole European project has been denigrated as a bureaucratic nightmare holding back the inherently dynamic qualities of the British economy. Making Brexit as difficult as possible is one way of demonstrating the falseness of that claim.
In any war there are casualties - and the Northern Irish peace process, the Irish economy more generally, and the German car industry may be the most obvious and visible. But when faced with the possibility of the EU disintegrating will EU leaders in general really give a damn? Possibly some side deals will be done to mitigate the worst problems but is a new trade deal with the UK, which would require the unanimous agreement of all EU members really feasible, especially in an era when Trump threatens to tear up even existing trade deals?
And what will happen if no substantive Brexit deal is agreed and without the transitional measures the UK now appears to be seeking? The general assumption is that WTO rules would apply, but is this necessarily the case? The UK would have to apply for WTO membership and this could be vetoed by existing members. If the UK were to gain massive competitive advantage by devaluing Sterling even further would there not be pressure on the EU to impose tariffs on UK imports to protect their own industries? If the UK retaliated with tariffs of its own, would a trade war not be the inevitable result?
There can be only one winner in that scenario, and it is not the UK. The EU, by performing relatively better would be seen as the winner even if its performance relative to the rest world continued to be perceived as anaemic. It would be a supreme irony if the UK, which did so much to build the post war architecture of the world order, were to become the first casualty of a breakdown in that world order. But perhaps that world order was only possible whilst extreme nationalism could be held in check, and perhaps this time it was the UK which failed to hold the line.