Hugo Dixon / Dec 2016
Jean-Claude Juncker and Michel Barnier. Photo: European Union
Excluding Theresa May from tonight’s EU summit dinner was a mistake - albeit an understandable one. Britain has done a lot to irritate the EU in the months since the referendum vote. One can see why the other 27 leaders and Donald Tusk, the European Council president, want to have an informal chat about Brexit over their Christmas feast without a bad fairy.
But both sides need to avoid winding one another up - and responding to provocations. As Michel Barnier, the European Commission’s Brexit negotiator rightly says: “Keep calm and negotiate.”
Respectful negotiations will mean we are more likely to avoid an acrimonious divorce that would be bad for both sides. They also mean there will be a greater chance that the British people will change their mind and decide they would prefer to stay in the EU after all when they see what Brexit means. By contrast, rabid Brexiters will use anti-British rhetoric to inflame passions at home, making it hard for pro-Europeans to make the case that the UK should stay in the EU.
Angela Merkel should know the script from her experience with last year’s Greek crisis. Whenever her finance minister Wolfgang Schaeuble made antagonistic comments about the Syriza government, he was demonised in the Greek press. Britain’s pro-Brexit press would be just as bad.
Lots of provocations
Of course, there are provocations. Boris Johnson last month snubbed a meeting of EU foreign ministers to discuss Donald Trump’s election telling Europeans to end the “whinge-o-rama” over the result. Our foreign secretary also offended the Italians by implying they had little to export other than prosecco. David Davis, meanwhile, made a patronising remark about how he might consider a transitional deal to be kind to the rest of the EU - when it will actually be Britain that will be hurt most if we fall off a cliff at the end of the two-year negotiating period.
EU leaders will no doubt find many other occasions to get their blood up before the talks are finished. But they need to keep their cool.
The key to doing this is to keep reminding themselves that the EU and Britain need each other more than ever. Trump’s election puts the world’s rules-based economic and political order - which has been crumbling in the past decade - under further strain. It is also a shot in the arm of Vladimir Putin. Meanwhile, the fall of Aleppo and Turkey’s descent into authoritarianism are the latest signs of the turmoil in the Middle East.
All this is a threat to the security of both the EU and Britain. Post-Brexit we won’t be well placed to confront the dangers together - even if the divorce is smooth. If it is bitter, the chances of successful cooperation will go out of the window.
Britain may change its mind
EU leaders should also keep one eye open for the possibility that the UK may change its mind on Brexit. In recent months there have been a few glimmers of hope.
One is the High Court’s judgment that the government must get parliamentary approval before launching formal divorce talks. The Supreme Court is expected to confirm this in the New Year. Another is the Richmond Park by-election, where the pro-European Liberal Democrats overturned a huge majority held by the Brexiter Zac Goldsmith. Yet another is the fact that parliament has found its voice and called for May to produce her Brexit plan - so it can be debated properly before she triggers Article 50.
Few MPs are currently willing to say they want to stop Brexit. But the prime minister looks like she is getting bogged down before the talks have even started. If she comes back with a bad deal in 2018, parliament may refuse to ratify it and, instead, call for another referendum to see if the people still want to leave. Given the EU’s desire to finish negotiations by October 2018 so the European Parliament has time to ratify the deal, there would be time for Britain to consult the people again.
Don’t punish Britain
But for these initiatives to have much chance of bearing fruit, European leaders must themselves play a long game. Part of the answer is not to punish Britain, as that will backfire.
Of course, the EU must pursue its own interests. That includes making sure that Britain isn’t able to cherry-pick the best bits of membership while avoiding the obligations. Otherwise, there would be an incentive for every other country to seek similar deals and the whole project would unravel.
But the EU must also be fair. It is, after all, a rules-based organisation. It won’t just be British populists who will use any hint of unfairness to make political capital. Anti-European demagogues across the continent will play on the fact that Brussels is being beastly to Britain as a way of drumming up support in their own countries - just as they did after the EU was seen to be bullying Greece last year.
They should also go out of their way to praise Britain in areas that are not central to the divorce negotiations.
For example, why doesn’t Angela Merkel say how much she values the UK’s help in keeping a strong line on sanctions against Putin? Or why doesn’t Francois Hollande say he appreciates the way British intelligence is helping fight Islamic terrorism? And how about Italy’s Paolo Gentiloni saying he’s grateful that the Royal Navy is combatting people-traffickers in the Mediterranean?
If Europe’s leaders are able to show they value Britain, it will be much easier for pro-Europeans in the UK to make the argument - when the time is right - that it should stay in the EU. British prime ministers might then be at the dinner table for many Christmas feasts to come.
This article is being published simultaneously on InFacts/E!Sharp