2017 Will Hail the European Spring

Scan the entire continent and there are more than just small pockets of discontent. Brexit is likely the first domino to fall and Malta’s Muscat must surely know this. It is under his stewardship what happens next. For the EU, to bow down to Britain and let them have their cake and eat it would send ripples of dissatisfaction throughout the continent and essentially chime as an admission of defeat. We may not be assuming our Presidency of the European Council at the end of next year. But the UK will, it seems, still be running the show.

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By Alexandra Phillips l December 1, 2016

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NAIROBI, KENYA – I couldn’t believe my eyes when I read a story on the BBC this week.

Malta’s Prime Minister said that EU leaders “aren’t bluffing” when they say the UK will be ‘left without access to the Single Market when it leaves the bloc, if there is no free movement of people.’ Or at least that’s how the BBC reported it.

Now either this is a gross error by the BBC exhibiting a sheer sloppiness in terminology that does not befit an internationally renowned news organisation, or utter lunacy from a national leader clearly not fit for the task.

Malta’s PM, Joseph Muscat, reinforced, “This is really and truly our position and I don’t see it changing.”

Hold the front page.

Is he really suggesting that all trade with the UK will be totally blocked when we leave the EU? That’s what ‘access’ is. Not membership. Access. Not even tariff-free access. Just Access.

Surely the threat of absolute sanction is not even compliant with international law. Such things, even when levied against ‘rogue states’ such as Iran and North Korea, have to be approved at UN/WTO levels after intense deliberation, and are employed as extreme measures to try to dissuade very, very bad countries from doing very, very bad things. The EU might wish to put the UK on the naughty step, but blocking access to trade is an astonishing proclamation.

It would cause catastrophic damage to the EU’s economy and totally discredit them on the global stage.

I don’t believe I am being a pedant here. I mean, when such threats are being reported on international media during a critical political era, precision is not only preferred, but necessary.

Hyperbole or sloppy reportage aside, both equally elude to a sentiment of desperation among Europhiles.

First of all, it’s critical to point out that Malta is about to adopt the Presidency of the European Council. This rotates between member states every six months, so when the leaders of the respective member states come together to sit as the European Council, the lead member state gets to lay out a programme of work and somewhat direct the mood music of the EU. Somewhat.

Ironically, it was, in fact, the UK’s turn to be at the helm at the end of 2017, which would make us lead negotiators on our own departure, but we graciously stepped aside.

So, Malta has inherited a political bonfire. The first round of negotiations, once Article 50 is triggered, will happen under their watch, and as a net beneficiary of the EU, whose former colonial cousin has just set sail for the open waters, you can comprehend to some degree their apprehension. But not only this. There are a few more major explosions stored up waiting to be detonated in the next year. Let’s start with the French Presidential elections.

It’s looking more and more likely that the debate over Frexit (or, I would rather it be Fréparture) has only just begun. The final contest is now probably going to be between Marie Le Pen of Le Front National; a re-clothed right wing party that, although packaged in a more ‘ouvert’ fashion, is still built upon the original Far Right movement created by her father Jean-Marie Le Pen in the seventies. Whereas UKIP’s purpose was constructed entirely around leaving the EU, the raison d’etre of the FN was, and in many respects still is, that of Nationalist Socialism. A phrase that sends chills down the spine of many on continental Europe. I don’t think the FN is in fact that dangerous. But even though the Republican candidate, former Prime Minister Francois Fillon, voted against the Maastricht Treaty that gave France the Euro and is a fan of Margaret Thatcher, and has made some candid comments about immigration and France’s global position, he is being attacked by Le Pen as pandering to the EU. If David Cameron’s fate under the influence of UKIP provided any lessons to our continental neighbours, it is to not fall into the trap of becoming a snide detractor of Euroscepticism. So, the Presidential race will become a race to see who can judge the right amount of right wingery to sate the populist vote, and the common denominator when it comes to the economy, immigration and security is EU membership. With it, you can’t control who, or what, crosses your borders. And France has really been at the sharp end of that particular issue of late suffering brutal terrorist attacks and a despised Socialist government.

Add to that the Austrian situation. Their re-run of Presidential elections is due to take place on 4th December. The first result had the Independent and former Green Party candidate just pip the Far Right candidate by a handful of votes. Under the decision to hold a recount due to postal vote irregularities, the Freedom Party could now take over. Expect murmurings of Öexit if they do.

Meanwhile in Italy, President Mario Renzi has called for a referendum on constitutional reform, announcing that he would stand down if the result did not see his great motion for change being passed. Such temptations have proven to be red rags to a bull of late. This has prompted the left wing 5 Star Movement, largely backed by a disheartened youth, who campaign avidly for direct democracy, but also against the EU (they sit in the same political grouping as UKIP in the European Parliament) to stir up the campaign against the reforms. Particularly as the reduction in elected representatives and their direct appointment was used to reassure the EU that their desired economic reforms of the country could be imposed. A subsequent election, were Italy left in constitutional crisis, could likely see 5 Star emerging as the largest party. And that would certainly mean a referendum on the EU, likely followed by something slightly more colourful than ‘Ciao’.

Scan the entire continent and there are more than just small pockets of discontent. Brexit is likely the first domino to fall and Malta’s Muscat must surely know this. It is under his stewardship what happens next. For the EU, to bow down to Britain and let them have their cake and eat it would send ripples of disatisfaction throughout the continent and essentially chime as an admission of defeat. But frankly, which choice do they have? If they try to impose trade barriers on the UK this would be equally harmful to EU trade and is frankly against the EU’s ethos of otherwise trying to establish free trade around the world. For Eurosceptics around the continent, it would also give succour to the claim that the EU is a myopically power hungry, detached federalist project.

I would also be keen to see the reaction of German car manufacturers and French wine exporters when reciprocal tariffs would be proposed on them by the UK, an important customer, at the same time as the Euro languishes in a tumultuous political environment.

It has become clear to me then, that as the first Leaver on whom future negotiations would be modelled, the UK actually holds all the cards. It is obvious to me that punishing the UK as an example and exhibiting brutal adherence to the EU dream actually plays into the hands of the Eurosceptics by rather proving their point. If the UK should stick to its guns and employ pragmatic discipline, good trade sense and diplomacy, we can beat a new path in global politics. It is for the EU to now make a fool of itself. All we have to do is not blink. I’m sure Mrs May knows it. Waiting to trigger Article 50 after the French elections is savvy. I am sure that the EU’s back will be against the ropes, if it isn’t so already. They will either have to desperately cling to the broken dream, in an embarrassing, self-destructive fashion, or offer concessions all round by rowing back on fundamental treaty pledges, essentially re-rendering the entire project to a looser, less political, trading bloc.

We may not be assuming our Presidency of the European Council at the end of next year. But the UK will, it seems, still be running the show.


Alexandra Phillips is former Head of Media for UKIP, the political party in Britain that campaigned to leave the EU and was aide to its charismatic leader Nigel Farage. She left UKIP after the referendum victory and joined the Conservative Party in order to ensure other big political ambitions are met in the U.K. She lives and works in London as a political advisor and communications consultant. Ms. Phillips is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis, of the conservative-online-journalism center at the Washington-based Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research.

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