Greetings from the French Alps!
It has been quite an eventful week for Europe. Last weekend we saw 27 EU leaders gather in Rome to pay homage to the Treaties of Rome, which laid the foundations for the European Union as we know it today, ushering in the longest period of peace in written European history. It’s been quite the year for the EU, with the unexpected whirlwind that is Brexit, EU frailty exposed over divisions and disputes regarding the refugee crisis, as well as the lightning pace of resurgence of far-right populism.
Nevertheless, and despite differences between EU member states on many fronts, a display of unity was on show to celebrate the unexpected success that we know the EU has shown itself to be since its humble beginnings. A new document dubbed the "Rome Declaration" — a reaffirmation of the EU’s founding principles and desire to further pursue the region’s continued integration — was duly signed by all the member state representatives. All rather grand. But let’s keep a clear head here. While the EU might have delivered on much promise over the last 60 years — which should be acknowledged for its merit — we have much in the way of change that needs to be addressed. As Pope Francis said to European leaders: “The EU’s success will depend on its readiness to work together once again, and by its willingness to wager on the future,” warning against a vacuum of values and sense of false security in Europe.
Which brings us to Brexit. If the 60th celebratory bash in Rome was momentous, the triggering of Article 50 on Wednesday by the U.K. government will be remembered as monumental. Effectively, Theresa May served the two-year notice period to Brussels with the intent of ending the U.K.’s 44-year relationship, in pursuit of a new place in the global order. I’ve read some people arguing that the act of Brexit and ensuing Great Repeal Bill is akin to the impact of the English reformation of 1534: Henry VIII’s Act of Supremacy effectively steering the country away from the influence and laws of European powers beyond the realm. The comparison speaks volumes.
So, what to make of it all? EU Council President Donald Tusk had a somber and emotional assessment: "There is nothing to win in this process for either side." There may well be more than a grain of truth to that. It is fair to state that both sides have a significant amount to lose should they not reach an amicable arrangement, and quite possibly both the EU and the U.K. now find themselves in a heightened sense of survival mode within the existing relationship. Ironically, the unexpected shock and speculative aftermath of the Brexit vote might well bring about the change in mindset at EU level which could have kept the U.K. at the negotiation table in the first place.
It is frankly no secret that within certain EU circles there is an acknowledgment of the need for meaningful reform to maintain relevance. Equally important is the realization of the growing disenchantment by European citizens. Europe cannot progress without bringing Europe closer to the people. This is a shared responsibility of both the EU institutions and its member states. Contrary to what citizens might think, it is their governments that mandate the EU in its mission.
On the Brexit timeline, we wait to hear on the negotiation guidelines from the EU, expected to be agreed late April, and for face to face talks to start somewhere in late May or early June; this does not leave a huge amount of time for actual exit negotiations if you consider that the member states will need anywhere between three-to-six months to ratify an accord. And only then can any meaningful trade agreement negotiations commence; that too would appear to be a hugely time consuming exercise if empirical experience is anything to go by.
All said and done, we will wait with baited breath for outcomes to materialize and hope for better days ahead.
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