By Timothy Bradley
Belgian Ambassador to the United States, Dirk Wouters, joined SFS graduate students today for a round-table discussion on the state of EU-UK relations amid the ongoing Brexit negotiations. Ambassador Wouters began the morning by offering some prepared remarks before opening the floor for an informal Q&A session.
The Ambassador opened by acknowledging how disillusioned the “Leave” Campaign had been in promising a smooth regain of national sovereignty after the vote to exit the Union. London has had far less leverage in the negotiations with Brussels than initially anticipated: The EU negotiators have made it an absolute priority to not back down and make concessions, as doing so could potentially incentivize other member states in the future to invoke Article 50 themselves, and thus catalyze a collapse of the European Project for good. Along these lines, the Ambassador also noted how, to him, no other Member State can afford to ask itself this same existential questions that UK citizens asked themselves when voting to leave the EU. For him, the continental states are too integrated and interwoven at every level of society, and to leave the EU is entirely out of the question.
Ambassador Wouters shrewdly pointed out how Britain already had enjoyed an exceptional relationship with the EU marked by opt-out and opt-in clauses in areas like currency, and the Schengen zone. English Prime Ministers, historically, have had a “tense” relationship with the EU, marked by an “ambiguous attitude” toward the European project and competing views between the Labor and Conservative Parties. This reality, he argued, has always made the UK’s membership in the EU particularly volatile.
At the height of the Brexit negotiations today are three important questions that remain unanswered: The amount of the ultimate divorce bill which could cost the UK up to 40 billion Pounds; the fate of the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland; and the terms of British access to the European single market after 2019. European leaders are at present joined together for a summit in Salzburg, Austria to discuss, among other pertinent topics, the future of their relations with the UK and whether they will compromise on the four freedoms of EU membership with the UK after March of 2019.
Ambassador Wouters assured the group of his confidence that a deal with Brussels will be finalized by the end of the year. He made it a point, however, to highlight how the process will be far from complete. Then, Prime Minister May must lead the ratification process in Parliament back in London. A very consequential seven months lie ahead of us, and a lot of questions remain to be answered. If 2018 is the year of questions surrounding Brexit, then 2019 will have to be the year of answers.