Labour’s sister parties are prepared to place European Union unity over the interests of the UK, argues Ivana Bartoletti
‘Nothing is forever,’ Willy Brandt once said. At the Social Democratic party conference in Berlin, that was the quote chosen by Sigmar Gabriel, the party leader and candidate against Angela Merkel, to highlight how Brexit offers the European Union the chance to be more united. Gabriel’s speech was interesting: the German leader (currently in government with Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union), criticised the austerity politics backed by his country as they led to discontent and, ultimately, rise of populism across Europe. SPD Bundestag deputy Axel Schäfer added that ‘the Brexit Leave campaign spread several untruths that found an audience beyond the borders of the United Kingdom,’ and stated: ‘we haven’t done enough to decisively counter anti-EU tirades’.
During the conference, Labour’s sister party made clear that European unity must override the UK’s interests in the Brexit negotiations.
The position of the SPD is important, I think. It shows what Labour’s counterparts on the continent are feeling right now. There is little doubt that the EU is at great risk, with turmoil spreading, the rise of anti-establishment movements and migration fears.
With regards to Brexit, it shows that the remaining EU states have priorities of their own, and that the UK government will struggle to find a proposal that can satisfy both countries on the continent and its domestic electorate.
With elections in several countries looming, our European counterparts will want to ensure Britain does not get a better deal outside of the EU, then as a member. Otherwise, the risk is that other countries will follow suit, leading to the dismantling of the European unity.
I do not think the government strategy has helped. While initially several countries expressed the hope that a solution could be found to keep London ‘closely involved in EU affairs’, attitudes have now sensibly shifted. Following the outcome of the referendum, the prime minister has toured the European capitals, using EU residents in the UK as bargaining chip – irritating her counterparts. Furthermore, the UK government is seen as working to cherrypick bits of what the EU has to offer, with little consideration for wider European issues and priorities. Over the years, the Netherlands, the Scandinavian countries, and at times the Czech Republic, Poland and Germany, have been strong allies to the UK. No doubt they will greatly miss our liberal voice. However, concerns have been raised from those countries, too. Denmark, for example, has stated that any concessions that do not benefit Copenhagen will simply be rejected.
It is a very difficult balance. As Mark Carney pointed out yesterday, Brexit will be damaging to the economy on the continent, not only to Britain’s. The essence of his argument was that London is the financial centre of Europe, and being cut off from the financial centre of Europe’s economy is not going to be good news for the EU countries. And this is certainly true.
However, the recent row between Boris Johnson and the Italian minister Carlo Calenda over Prosecco shows that things are a bit more complicated. In the bizarre exchange of messages about who would sell more prosecco or fish and chips, Calenda replied: ‘we will be selling prosecco to a country less, you will be selling fish and chips to 27 countries less.’
The row shows that European countries might decide to stick together and endure some initial Brexit pain for the sake of preserving the future of the EU.
With the continent in turmoil, the election of Donald Trump, and the growing influence of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, the future is unpredictable. Now more than ever, it will depend of what we make of it – as long as we are up to it.
Ivana Bartoletti is chair of Fabian Women’s Network. She tweets @IvanaBartoletti
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