24th Mar 2018


Never mind 'hard Brexit', let's talk 'hard remain'

  • The withdrawal negotiations between the EU and the UK are stuck, and time is running out. (Photo: Giles Turnbull)

Never mind "hard" and "soft" Brexit. It is time we started talking about "hard remain".

The withdrawal negotiations between the European Union and the United Kingdom are stuck and time is running out.

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The position of UK prime minister Theresa May seems to be more and more tenuous.

As her voice falters, the chorus of her critics is growing louder on the possibility of halting Britain's withdrawal by rescinding the Article 50 notification, sent on 29 March 2017.

Whether that is even legally possible is questionable, as is the wisdom of the EU simply re-embracing its prodigal member state.

Admittedly, many would be relieved and willing to help the UK to exit from Brexit.

It would keep the UK within the single market, the sixty-five million Britons would retain their rights as EU citizens, and it would avoid flaring up sectarian divisions in Ireland. In the short-term, it would save all of Europe - and its international partners - a considerable amount of hassle.

Nevertheless, the EU and the remaining 27 member states should not get carried away by the prospect of the UK remaining.

Special privileges

Rescinding the withdrawal must not be used as a stealthy way to extend additional privileges and special treatment to the UK - as was the objective of David Cameron in the lead-up to the referendum in June 2016.

Back then, he achieved a set of concessions, such as the UK being exempted from the EU's commitment to an "ever-closer Union", making it easier to deport foreigners from EU countries, and reiterating that it would never have to join the euro.

As was noted at the time by EU leaders, if the UK decided to leave, the deal offered to Cameron would be off the table.

They should remember that point - even in a situation where the possibility of the UK changing its mind seems tantalisingly close.

They should stand firm, not out of spite, but to avoid a never-ending wrangling about attempts to maximise special treatment and benefits for the UK within the EU.

Herein lies the danger of even allowing the unilateral revocation of the Article 50 notification to leave the EU.

For instance, after a revocation, the threat of new referendums followed by tedious withdrawal negotiations would be hanging like a sword of Damocles - ready to fall at any moment and cut through the fabric that holds together the EU as an economic and political entity.

Moreover, if this strategy were to work for the UK, what is to stop other disgruntled member state governments from trying the same?

Lighting the fuses

While a "soft remain" puts out one fire, it lights several new fuses.

Instead, it needs to be made clear that the UK can only remain in the EU on the latter's terms. This means, at the very least, making clear that the deal offered to Cameron in 2016 is no longer available.

But it is also an opportunity to revisit the other aspects of special treatment the UK has been benefiting from for decades - and which were apparently not enough to prevail over impossible promises on the side of a bus.

These benefits include the British rebate - negotiated by Margaret Thatcher in 1984 to reduce the country's contribution to the EU budget - the opt-outs from the economic and monetary union (the euro), and from the passport free-Schengen travel area.

Going by the speeches made last month by French president Emmanuel Macron and European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, as well as the new Dutch coalition government programme, the appetite on the continent is not so much for finding "creative" or "bespoke" solutions for Brexit, but to move past it.

So, not accommodating further disaggregation, but fostering more unity.

Hence, it would only be consistent to put all British opt-outs and other forms of special treatment on the table, with a view to phasing them out in exchange for letting the UK rescind its withdrawal.

The choice is then a clear-cut one: Have your cake or eat it.

Either Britain can proceed with "taking back control" and become a normal, sovereign state, or it can reassert control within the EU's common institutions and become a normal EU member state.

The following years will be crucial to reshape Europe in a way that is fairer, that is more unified and more straightforward to its citizens.

Hence, just because many Europeans - including many Britons - would prefer a "soft Brexit" over a "hard" one, this should not lead us to believe that "soft remain" is the right way forward.

The EU can extend its hand to the UK if the latter changes its mind. But it should not sacrifice a limb at the expense of its own future.

Joris Larik is an assistant professor of comparative, EU and international law at Leiden University in the Netherlands, and is currently a Fulbright-Schuman fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at the Johns Hopkins University Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington DC.

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