A short story about unintended consequences in European politics. Set two years from now, after a close ‘no’ to the EU
All fictional. Well, not quite… (Do spot how 12 key politicians may change jobs… David Cameron, Boris Johnson, Theresa May, David Miliband, Jeremy Corbyn, Jean-Claude Juncker, Angela Merkel, Ursula Van der Leyen, Alain Juppé, Emmanuel Macron, Bruno Lemaire, Hillary Clinton, and also: Jonathan Faull and Martin Selmayr. Last but not least: King William).
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10 Downing Street , at 5 pm GMT, Friday, March 16, 2018
(one week before the Brussels Summit will conclude two years of exit negotiations, eight weeks before a new referendum is set to approve ‘partnership’ conditions)
Rescue into second class
The Prime Minister looks his coalition partner straight in the eye:
- Theresa, let’s be frank, your exit package is incomplete. This ‘Partnership Treaty’ is nearly as weak as Norway’s association with the EU. We would have no say on legislation affecting huge swathes of our economy.
- David, must I remind you of the Brexit mandate we got from the People? Your beating Boris subsequently didn’t change that. New Conservatives like me stood like you: for being pragmatic and respecting the referendum.
- Sure, you have my support. I realise you have the worst hand to play that any foreign secretary ever had. Boris preferred his England to our United Kingdom, and got none of it. In fact, in hindsight he reminds me of the other Boris. Yes, you know, Boris Yeltsin, who preferred to break up his Union, the Soviet one, to gain control of Russia, a diminished country.
Theresa May smiles, and jokes:
- Well, you are not quite as bad as Gorbachev! And even without the common market, we are not in a planned economy, right?
- Ok, now, back to business! My ‘partnership’ manifesto for the elections promised to preserve many policies. Our coalition agreement doesn’t foresee just the internal market.
Lady May leans forward, not ready to yield, as during the December 2016 coalition talks:
- Well, precisely, David. Based on your ‘rescue plan’ we adopted all sensible regulations into English law. Now we need to move forward, having a big voting right overall, and getting in on new policies like security. But that’s just too much for them, in Europe.
- What about the recent massacres? Doesn’t that create some sense of solidarity?
- At future EU meetings of foreign ministers, we’d be welcome as ‘frequent guests’. That’s what my colleague Bruno Lemaire promised…
David Miliband can’t help quipping:
- Can we trust the French?
But Theresa May, unmoved, pursues:
- I agree with you: the UK does not fit into vague talk of a second-class seat!
Exiles from Brussels
Jonathan Faull comes in discreetly. Many ambitious UK Eurocrats left the EU Commission in 2017, to ‘help Whitehall sort the mess’, as they said. Or to lobby for British firms worried about losing their influence. One cynical commentator quoted Churchill: ‘Success is moving from one failure to another without loss of confidence’ ; he then added: ‘And this starts with the Brit who was in charge of preventing a Brexit scenario!’
The former EU Director General bows respectfully and utters softly:
- Yes, Prime Minister. Our Government does not get enough say. But perhaps there is a little more to gain. First, President Juncker is now available. Shall I switch on your video screen?
Refugees anyway, or war
The ‘partnership couple’ moves to the desk of the Prime Minister, who speaks first:
- Bonjour Jean-Claude. I’ll get straight to the point. We must find a way to avoid a disaster on Good Friday. Theresa is next to me, as you can see. Any good news for her before her preparatory Council meeting on Monday?
- Good morning David, Hello, Lady May. First a piece of logistical advice, if I may: do not take the Eurostar. Since France stopped holding migrants in Calais, there are massive disruptions. From tomorrow, all Commonwealth citizens will be let through. People forecast about 1 million Indians, Pakistanis and Nigerians will be on the move in the next 12 months. Good luck!
This remark triggers the attention of the Prime Minster:
- Ah, well, let me come in on that. Please do not confuse me with the other David. I won’t be scared by inflows of people. I have relevant experience, as leader of the International Rescue Committee. We should not forbid refugees from settling here, but prevent this situation in the first place. That implies early military intervention if civil populations are at great risks, like in Syria. Cameron didn’t get that right.
Lady May feels a bit defensive:
- Thanks for the practical advice, Mr Juncker. Entre nous, it seems that our insistence on strong Commonwealth links was a bit misunderstood.
UK like Turkey and the US
The foreign minister continues, not wanting to side-track a geopolitical discussion:
- Now, as discussed with Frans Timmermans, any news on ‘deciding together’ for security matters?
President Juncker glances at his briefing pack, just below the camera field, then lifts his eyes:
- Well, of course! You will be consulted. Just like Turkey. Also a member of NATO. But if you still mean a seat on the new EU Security Council and on the board of the EU Intelligence Agency, I’m afraid that’s not what I hear.
The Prime Minister frowns, and adds:
- Jean-Claude, could you exert some influence to help Theresa and me? The bombings in Canterbury, the Vatican and Munich call for joint action, no?
The Brussels leader reads his paper again, and states formally:
- We should stand together, yes. As we do with the US.
He now gets closer to the screen and speaks softly:
- Let me talk frankly, in confidence. No ‘BrexitLeaks’, OK? There is some hope in your own government. But goodwill for the UK is not high on the continent. First, people wonder if they talk to the UK, or to England and Wales. Edinburgh starts making direct approaches…
The Prime ministers stands back, and counters:
- Let’s not speculate! We are the government for the United Kingdom!
Juncker shakes his head:
- Please don’t take it formally. I am trying to help, and to speak frankly. I hear even the Irish situation is not clear. Catholics want to seize the Scottish momentum, and the EU’s attraction, to join the Republic…
Now David Miliband is really upset:
- Look, don’t even go there! I don’t call Luxembourg a German Land, right? So, please don’t question the UK’s integrity! Actually, the Council meets on Good Friday. This should remind all of us of the Irish Good Friday agreement. Otherwise, we go back to riots and murders…
Juncker makes a conciliatory gesture, and continues:
- Well, you just talked of my own country’s situation…Believe me, we are squeezed by two giants, not one. Since 2016, the French-German axis is stronger than ever. By the way, did you try to talk with Juppé? Or with Angela in her current role?
Miliband also waves an open hand, and adds:
- Well, we start with you, Jean-Claude. You do stand for general interest, I respect that.
The tensions seem appeased. Faull gives a file to the Prime Minister, who comments:
- Granted, our joint negotiating team found good solutions for existing economic rules. And since you mentioned France: Macron has been Prime Minister for even less time than me, but was a good final broker, I must say. What remains, though, is to be involved in future Otherwise we feel like Europe’s colony.
President Juncker is seen on screen looking at his watch. He closes:
- Very ironic, given Britain’s history… Being a colony would indeed be strange. But I’m afraid I can’t move on that. It’s both political and legal. You can copy our EU laws, but you are either ‘in’ or ‘out’ of the decision-making. On security, there is some room for adjustment, though. President Clinton or her Vice President will be a ‘frequent guest’ at Summits. You will be invited in a similar capacity. That should help public relations, right?
Both Ministers take a brief rest. Miliband looks to his smartphone and clicks on EurActiv news. The first screen reads: ‘UK universities complain about Brexit.
Registrations of EU students and researchers are down by one third. Due to stricter visa rules, they have not been replaced by non-EU people …’
Miliband shows it to May, and comments:
- Educated circles broadly voted ‘yes’ in 2016, let’s not lose them.. Plus it took years to establish ERASMUS exchanges and R&D networks: our future is at stake!
Merkel über Alles
Faull steps forward again, and mutters:
- Prime Minister, I just got a message from Selmayr in Brussels. Mrs Merkel would like to join us via video conference. Shall I welcome them?
The Prime Minister seems relieved and whispers into the civil servant’s ear:
- Sir Humphrey… sorry, Mr Faull: fine! She can even chair our talk.
Turning to his Foreign Secretary, he gives a fatalist look:
- It’s her new role, after all. Unlike Tusk, she has the support of her domestic government. Germany, unlike Poland, does not risk leaving the EU!
On the PM’s desk, a second screen lights up, it flashes ‘President of the EU Council’. Then appears the image of Angela Merkel in her office, smiling, from the Justus Lipsus building in Brussels.
- Hello Angela. Thank you for joining. Your leadership is required. The ‘voluntary contribution’ you negotiated to maintain access to the internal market is quite steep. I hope the political aspects will be more balanced.
Angela Merkel nods, and quips:
- Of course! You know I am the mother of balance!
So, the Prime Minister continues:
- Otherwise, the British people will not support it, and Scotland would leave the UK after our Spring referendum. Do you wish another difficult negotiation?
The German President of the EU now speaks slowly, and cautiously:
- I understand, David. As for Scotland, I think you have this phrase ‘I couldn’t possibly comment’. I understand it’s still a domestic matter? Self-inflicted, I heard, but I may be wrong…
- Yes, Angela, but politically things are related: Scots want continued EU membership, or something similar. Otherwise, they’ll try to get it as new EU Member State, before the exit transition time is over. There are European Parliament elections in Spring 2019: Scots clearly want to vote then, whatever happens to England.
Angela Merkel raises both hands in front of the webcam. Apparently pretending that she could not ‘call the shots’:
- Well David, we all wanted continued EU membership of your country. But we also couldn’t have the UK slowing down every EU initiative forever. I must stand for the whole EU. If I may, not for a departing part of a former Member State.
The German politicians pauses for a moment, then continues:
- Plus we also have to deal with the Eurosceptic ‘Alternative für Deutschland’… Any institutional involvement of the UK would undermine the government in my count’… I mean in Germany’s public opinion. And anyway, this could be challenged by both the EU Court inLuxembourg. Or by the German Court in Karlsruhe.
- But Angela, we are both committed Atlantists and Europeans, you know it. Theresa as well. And the government you left in place under Ursula Van der Leyen is a coalition again, like ours. You really want to discuss Europe’s security with the Central Europeans and not with us in the West?
English soft power, really soft
- David, Central Europe matters a lot to us Germans, please remember where I am from…
The Prime Minister makes a worried smile, the strong lady from the East continues:
- But perhaps symbols could help you here. I still have a bit of influence in Berlin… we’ll see what we can do, at least to appease your public opinion. How about this? When President Clinton visited Berlin, I joined her. We agreed that either she or her VP would be a frequent guest at our EU Security Councils. Did she call you about her offer? She said she wanted to treat you like a Kind… sorry for my English, I meant ‘to treat you kindly’.
The Prime Minister pauses for a moment. He is being left out of the transatlantic loop. Despite having met Hillary a number of times, among ‘progressives’ during his New York exile… He could still be enjoying life there: why did he come back for mission impossible, he wondered?
- David, are you still listening? Here is what we could do: each time the VP comes to Brussels, Air Force Two would stop over in London, before the Brussels EU Security Council, just before NATO Councils. So, you could join the US leadership and coordinate ‘Anglo-Saxon positions’, so to say, on the plane and be pictured together. Maybe that helps with the English press? That’s what you had in mind with ‘revival of the special partnership’, right?
- Danke, Angela for your gesture. But I don’t think we can win a ‘yes’ to the exit package on the basis of frequent flyer miles.
- I agree, David, this is just a small contribution. I would not neglect what you can get, though. By the way, we also need to talk about the G-20 and UN seats for Engl…, sorry, I mean Britain. France is now ready to hand its permanent seat on the Security Council to the EU, as long as the representative will be French. Do you think this may put the UK seat into question?
David Miliband closes politely, switches the screen off, and turns to his coalition partner:
- Theresa, in 2016 we got 52% against EU membership. This time, we could fare even worse against the exit package. And, in all fairness to you, I don’t see how we can improve the deal very much. Do you see light at the end of this tunnel?
Pressure from upstairs
Before the ‘New Tory’ politician can answer, Faull steps forward again. He offers two bits of ‘sobering news’, as he calls it:
- First, Prime Minister, the Palace called. His Majesty would quite like your next Wednesday meeting to feature the upcoming deal and the impact on the economy.
The Prime Minister straightens ups in his seat and takes note. The former Eurocrat continues:
- And there may be another aspect to this request…
The Prime Minister raises an eyebrow, looking interested:
- Could the royals help win the referendum, perhaps? The Queen’s abdication was timely. The coronation of King William helped postpone the second Scottish referendum until this and our exit package would be clear to all. So, what is it?
- Well, Sir, it’s a bit delicate, but not that political. Both the Crown Estates and the King’s own portfolios are deeply affected by the fall of Sterling and the drop in share prices. We hear the same from CBI and various lobbyists. Investors need good news. Otherwise companies and His Majesty’s Treasury will run out of money….
- Your staff will cover these points for my red box reading, tonight. Anyway, I have to face question time in Parliament before I travel to Brussels.
Pressure from downstairs
- Now, Mr Faull, what is the other bad news?
- We have new opinion poll findings. As it stands, two months before the date, it’s the least predictable referendum so far. 40% of the electorate is still undecided. 30% are against the ‘Theresa May agreement’. On Twitter, what is trending now is the hashtag #Maymaynot… These are mainly the UKIP fans, like usual, they don’t know what they are voting against. And, sorry to say, so far only 30% are in favour.
Theresa May seems hesitating and voices:
- David, I guess some pro-EU voters are undecided or even against. I can hear such reactions in our own ranks. They are not wrong: the exit package is not as good as our membership so far, including opt-outs and the 2016 Cameron concessions.
The civil servants brings some more facts:
- Indeed, Minister. The 40% undecided appear divided equally between 20% for 2016 abstainers and 20% for former pro-EU voters. The abstainers are likely to stay out, and the hesitating pro-Europeans can’t support a ‘Norwegian solution’.
The Prime Minister asks for a moment’s thought, scribbles something and then smiles:
- Well, Theresa, Mr Faull, there may be a solution. The figures seem poor, but let’s look at them in a different way. If you add the ‘pro agreement’ 30% plus 20% for the pro-EU half of the undecided, you have already 50% in favor of some agreement with the EU – deep or shallow – and only 30% dead against. If we formulate the referendum in a ‘smart’ way, that’s winnable!
- Yes, let’s be ‘creative’, David. UKIP creates facts, we have to create formulations. Like the EU folks themselves when writing Treaties, but still a bit clearer. . But would this yes vote support an exit agreement or a continued membership?
- Teresa, that’s where we need two questions in this new referendum. To try and catch everybody. Here is how I would formulate the whole thing:
Question 1: Do you support the UK government making an agreement with the European Union, preserving access to the common market?
Question 2: Should such an agreement be made, should the UK also participate in decision-making under a ‘focused membership’?
The leaders of the ‘Partnership Coalition’ lean back and envision victory. Getting ‘yes’ and ‘yes’ seems do-able, overcoming the June 2016 disaster.
Half-empty exit, or half-full back-in, or England alone.
The Foreign Secretary then wonders, as if it was all too good to be true:
- People might think the questions are a bit tricky. We’d need to communicate that there are really three clear options: no agreement at all, an exit agreement, or even better: rejoining the EU. Politically it’s rejoining, legally it’s not leaving at all…
Faull steps forward and offers:
- If I may, Prime Minister, Ireland and Denmark also voted twice on similar matters. They are now appeased and relatively happy. Better emulate them than Norway..
The Prime Minister leans forward, raises a finger, and offers:
- Come to think of it, in terms of policies, of substance, a slightly more complete exit would not be very different from a membership with plenty of opt outs. The main difference is political and legal: decision-making.
The Prime Minster now stands up, as if on the campaign trail:
- Everything else being equal – it’s obvious that our country is better off with voting rights than without. So, it’s really a choice between a half-empty glass called ‘exit’, and half-full one, just with a better grip and look. In other words, it’s back to the Common Market in any case. Either without , or with or our ministers and MEPs lobbying for us in Brussels.
- Yes, David. The only other scenario is England alone, with little market access and little security cooperation: that’s really a marginal option. So, if we make the case clearly, we could get the support in 2018 that we didn’t get in 2016. Great!
A bit late…
Faull stands up and murmurs:
- There is just a little catch, if I may, Prime Minister. The deal Lord Cameron made foresaw that all concessions would vanish in the event of a Brexit vote. Some Member States including Belgium wanted to avoid ‘incremental carpet bargaining’, as they saw it.
The Prime Minister did not follow negotiations closely at the time. He looks surprised, so Faull continues:
- This scenario did happen, so we can go back to the 2015 status quo, but not to the four changes from 2016. Also, I hear the infamous UK rebate on the Budget may be questioned if we get back in now…
The Prime Minister’s mood has changed again. He breathes deeply, sits down and concludes:
- Mr Faull, thanks for this background. So, voting for EU membership in 2018 still makes sense, but would have been better in 2016?
- Yes, Prime Minister.
Now, it’s up to you!
@LeclercqEU and Sharon Spooner
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(a French-British couple, who also wrote on ‘the focused membership’. Inspired by an earlier @LeclercqEU article in Le Monde on a renewed EEC)
Dear readers, comments welcome at the bottom of this post, and by email, or quicker Tweet #Brexit #2018 #LeclercqEU:
For example, any twist in this story that you fear/wish/foresee? Thanks.
Another piece you might enjoy, which received top readership from April 1st…: REVEALED: Europe’s secret revenge plans for Brexit …Christophe Leclercq