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Welcoming back the prodigal son?

17 October 2018
Fabian Zuleeg (Chief Executive and Chief Economist)



The possibility of the UK remaining a member state if London changes its mind is taken as a given by both Remainers and Leavers. The underlying assumption is that the EU27 would welcome the UK back with open arms. But how realistic is this scenario when seen from the other side of the English Channel?  

The EU’s red lines

While virtually nobody in the EU wanted to see the UK leave, the ground has shifted since the vote. In line with their fundamental economic and political interests, the EU27 have established a number of red lines. First, a country leaving the EU cannot have a better deal than those staying. Second, access and participation in EU programmes and policies have to be matched by obligations. Third, the EU's primary interest is to preserve the indivisibility, coherence and integrity of its Single Market and its common trade policy. Fourth, EU political rights, regulatory powers and decision making are reserved to member states. Fifth, the open border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland has to be ensured, not least because a member state's vital national interest will always be prioritised over those of a third country.

The EU’s unity will hold as these red lines embody the Union’s fundamental interests. For the EU27, even a ‘no deal’ outcome would be preferable to a bad deal that would undermine these principles. This also implies that, were the UK to consider remaining, there would be no special arrangement for example on freedom of movement to sweeten the decision, not even the limited concessions David Cameron had negotiated. In light of these red lines, the current political positions by the two major political parties seem to rule out the possibility of a ‘soft’ Brexit, let alone that of continuing membership.

British political instability

The UK’s ongoing political turmoil further muddies the water. The EU27 would find it difficult to determine whether or not there has been a decisive change of heart. What would a Westminster vote against the Withdrawal Agreement mean? A leadership challenge in the Conservative Party might turn it more Eurosceptic, not less. What would be the question on a second referendum would it provide a clear-cut majority? For the EU, only a real commitment to stay – on the basis of current membership conditions – would be acceptable. Anything else would, at best, create further uncertainty and delays. At worst, it could be seen as the UK playing for time to renegotiate a deal that it does not like because of a fundamental disagreement on the EU’s red lines. This makes a unanimous decision of the EU27 on the extension of Article 50 negotiations rather unlikely. The view in many capitals is that the UK has to choose now between the deal on the table or no deal, and that the EU’s helping hand should not be further extended.

Another sticking point is the EU27’s lack of trust in the UK's political system. The Brexit process has highlighted that, constitutionally, the UK cannot commit future Westminster parliaments to any outcome, not even when enshrined in international treaties. There is a real concern that, if London were to decide to stay, nothing would prevent the UK from restarting the Brexit process at any point in future.

This is not unrealistic: there remains a robust streak of Euroscepticism in the UK. Even among those advocating continued membership, many are reluctant Remainers, seeing the benefits of economic integration but not of the European project as a whole. If the UK were to stay, it would remain an "awkward partner", potentially even more prone to block progress given a reluctant populace at home.

The other side of the coin

The negative impact of Brexit is also much more differentiated for the EU27 than it is for the UK. While economically, on aggregate, Brexit is a loss, many sectors, regions and countries will, in fact, benefit, for example from redirected investment or reduced competition. Politically, Brexit and its numerous adverse effects will serve as a useful deterrent for Eurosceptic elements. While this does not imply an active promotion of Brexit, these countervailing interests significantly reduce the incentive to bend the rules and offer concessions to accommodate the UK.  

While the EU would welcome a genuine reconsideration and UK commitment to remain, it seems unlikely that it can happen, especially within the time left to come to an agreement. Many now seem to concur with a German saying: ‘Besser ein Ende mit Schrecken als ein Schrecken ohne Ende' (preferably a terrible ending than horror without end). The EU will not bend over backwards to accommodate the UK. There will be no special deals, and patience and trust will be in even shorter supply.

For the EU27, the possibility that the UK remains a member has all but disappeared from serious consideration. This will disappoint many Remainers, who are pinning their hope on a last-minute reprieve. But Brexiteers should be aware that the threat of no deal is also not seen as credible as most think that the UK will not commit economic suicide. If the UK cannot agree to an orderly withdrawal, the EU is willing to live with no deal. Yes, this has many negative impacts, not least with regard to the Northern Ireland border. But the alternative outcome would erode the foundations on which the EU is built and goes against the collective political interest of the EU27 – and no EU member state is willing to do that.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this Commentary are the sole responsibility of the author.