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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 June 2018

The EU's more pragmatic and sensible approach to Brexit is overdue and welcome

The more in the EU who speak up for a businesslike and mutually beneficial approach, the better, writes Sholto Byrnes

The European Union must conduct Brexit negotiations in a more conciliatory fashion, writes Sholto Byrnes. AP
The European Union must conduct Brexit negotiations in a more conciliatory fashion, writes Sholto Byrnes. AP

There appears to have been a rare but welcome outbreak of common sense in the EU. In the past few days Denmark's finance minister, Peter Jensen, told Brussels to stop playing games over the Brexit negotiations. The two sides, he said, were now “on the same page” and concluding a deal was “not rocket science”. Then a German MEP, Hans-Olaf Henkel, spoke out in the European parliament against the hardline stance of the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, and pointed out that it was the inflexibility of leading Europhiles that was one of the main causes of Brexit. “It was their mantra for more Europe, more centralisation, more socialisation which led to the referendum in the first place,” he said.

Aiming his remarks initially at the former Belgian premier and leading Euro-integrationist, Guy Verhofstadt, Mr Henkel said: “First of all, Mr Verhofstadt, people like you should stop this arrogance vis-a-vis the British voters. Secondly, Mr Barnier, you should stop giving the impression you want to punish the British for their decision.”

Such plain speaking is to be welcomed. For it is obvious that the first priority of the fanatical elite at the core of the European Union has not been the forging of an agreement that would be good for both the UK and the EU. No, their intentions are exactly as the former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis predicted a few months ago: “Britain will have to be made an example of,” he said. “Any recalcitrant government that steps outside the modus vivendi will be crushed.”

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So it is good indeed to hear European voices being raised in support of a more pragmatic and sensible approach. Demanding outrageous sums of money from a country that has always been a net contributor to the EU budget as the price to begin talks on a trade deal is neither. Indeed, nothing could be more likely to cause outrage among even quite EU-friendly Britons; the sentiment that having to pay to leave a club is a particularly brazen innovation is widespread.

The more in the EU who speak up for a businesslike and mutually beneficial approach, the better. And not just to the parting of ways that is Brexit, but to the EU’s activities in general.

Next month, for instance, the fifth EU Eastern Partnership summit will take place in Brussels – the first for two years. The EaP was formed in 2009 with Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. According to the European Council, its aim is “to promote political association and economic integration between the EU and the six Eastern European partner countries.”

Political association and economic integration with Moldova – the poorest country in Europe, with part of its territory an internationally unrecognised breakaway state supported by Russia? The latter description also applies to another two of the six, Georgia and Ukraine, while Belarus is widely considered to be the last dictatorship in Europe.

While association with these countries is certainly to be welcomed, the EaP is quite clearly part of the same harebrained strategy that led Nato to encroach – as Moscow saw it – on its historical sphere of influence, on its “near abroad”, and which has led to the Russian revanchism that Vladimir Putin has exploited so successfully and to the wholly unnecessary creation of a new cold war in Eastern Europe.

Are Georgia, Moldova or Ukraine ever going to join the EU when they've all got Russian troops on the ground? This is pie-in-the-sky nonsense. It’s never going to happen.

The EaP countries are said to be hoping for a path to EU membership at next month’s summit. Perhaps they should consider Turkey’s experience in that regard. Having first applied for associate membership of the then EEC in 1959, it has been kept hanging on for decades. After innumerable meetings and agendas and dialogues, it is clear that even under a different leadership – one more secular and liberal democratic – the hurdles the EU have erected are such that Turkey will never be able to overcome them, not least because various EU leaders have said they are opposed in principle to a Muslim state joining. The promise was always false. The European Partnership six should not be similarly deluded, especially when the appetite for expansion has weakened in some core EU countries.

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The offer of membership – at some point in the future – is still made, however, because of those who still cling to the idealism (some would say insanity) of an “ever-closer union” that could bind Europe at its widest into a successor state to one of its past empires, or indeed to the medieval idea of “Christendom”.

Committing to that ideal, however, is provoking dissent – such as in Poland and Hungary – and even led to revolution in Ukraine. (Whatever one thinks of Viktor Yanukovych – and I am no fan – he was the country’s democratically elected president and his removal was unconstitutional.) The refusal to grant any meaningful concessions to the UK also undoubtedly led to Brexit.

The application of this ideal is becoming seriously counter productive. Can the ideologues of the EU be persuaded to listen to Denmark’s Mr Jensen and Germany’s Mr Henkel, and take a more pragmatic approach to the UK, to Eastern Europe – where working more closely with Mr Putin's Eurasian Union would make more sense – and to member states who do not wish to follow their every edict?

Asking them to do so may be a tall order. But the fact that at least some politicians are beginning to call for restraint is an encouraging sign. Even Eurosceptics wish the EU well – even if the favour is not returned by the Bonapartes of Brussels.

Sholto Byrnes is a senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia