The amusing film of Theresa May at last week’s European Council looking rather confused and isolated drew the predictable reactions – Brexiteers saw it as the EU bullying the UK, while Remain people saw it as a symbol of Britain’s choice to isolate itself.
For me the thing that was really remarkable was that Theresa May’s spokesperson expressed the view that May was happy to be excluded. This point is further underlined by Simon Usherwood on the LSE EUROPP blog – “by offering nothing, it [the UK] should now expect nothing in return” he says of the UK’s current role in the European Council.
This should give all Brits, and even Brexiteers, cause for concern. If the UK is not using every available opportunity to shape the Brexit process, it is essentially acknowledging its lack of control of and influence over that process. If Theresa May were serious about getting the best Brexit deal she should determinedly insist the UK is present at every stage and at every meeting.
It instead seems to me that the UK has slipped into a Soft Brexit – even though it has not even formally left the EU yet. It remains within the Single Market and the Customs Union, but its political influence within the EU is evaporating – and the UK government is assisting with that process.
To all intents and purposes on questions other than Brexit, the EU is now behaving as if the UK does not exist, is marginalised, and that – in terms of political decision making – the rest of the EU will proceed without thinking of the UK.
Simon Hix, armed with VoteWatchEurope data, argued that even before the referendum, Britain’s influence over the EU was starting to slip. Jonathan Hill resigned as Commissioner from the UK, to be replaced by ex-diplomat Julian King who has kept an extraordinarily low profile since his appointment. Boris Johnson is openly ridiculed for advocating Turkey join the EU despite the UK leaving it. The UK held together a blocking minority on trade protection measures, but even that has now fallen apart. Immediately making the UK’s Permanent Representation to the EU (UKRep) part of the Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU) means the everyday legislative process is no longer important (info on the Machinery of Government change here) and when Permanent Representative Ivan Rogers suggested it will take 10 years to do Brexit properly, he’s criticised for “gloomy pessimism”. Yes, the UK has whinged a bit about plans for an EU defence union, but even on that I would not be surprised if there were a way to make it happen eventually through enhanced cooperation anyway.
The danger of a Soft Brexit, otherwise generally known as the Norway option, is that the EU has influence over the UK through Britain still being in the Single Market, but that the UK has no political influence over what the EU is doing. It feels that situation has already come to pass, even without the UK having begun the formal process to leave.