The continued asphyxiation of the EU’s business by Brexit is unsustainable
All that time, effort, energy and money spent dealing with the Brexit shambles could have been expended elsewhere
The EU will no longer be sad to see the UK go; it will be relieved. Photograph: Getty Images
First sadness, then bemusement, then frustration, now anger. The change in sentiment towards the British government in Brussels has been palpable over the past two years.
There was a time when there was genuine sadness at the decision to leave the European family, as many see it . But that has changed, morphing through increasing bemusement at how ineptly it was being managed, progressing through frustration at the endless one-step-forward-two-steps-back nature of the negotiations to now anger at the continuing disruption to the EU caused by the British failure to agree a deal and just leave.
The EU will no longer be sad to see the UK go; it will be relieved.
I write from the Justus Lipsius building where yet another EU summit has been totally dominated by Brexit. There was relief here in the early hours of Friday when it became clear that we would all not have to return next week for another Brexit summit in advance of the March 29th deadline.
But the deadline has only been moved for a few weeks. EU leaders designed a way to create space for Theresa May that she has denied herself; but there is little confidence she can use it to decide and execute.
The sense that this might all end badly is growing. The EU’s dual extension ploy was as much about avoiding blame for a crash-out as helping May avoid it. For there is little confidence that she has the strength or the will to help herself.
For the officials and politicians who operate the great machine of the European Union, the continued asphyxiation of the EU’s business and momentum by Brexit is both intolerable and unsustainable.
Their desire to end this phase is intensified by the knowledge that this is the easy bit: the talks on a future relationship – including but not limited to a trade deal – are likely to be longer, more complicated and more fractious. It hardly bears thinking about.
There was a time not so long ago when some people in the EU thought that a long period of negotiations was a great idea as the British would sooner or later lose interest in leaving; now that is their greatest fear.
There is other business to be getting on with. The summit agenda also included relations with China, the economy, climate change, international relations and completing the single market.
The EU has a budget to fix, a migration crisis on its southern borders, threats from Russia, relations with China and the ending of the Merkel era to deal with.
It wants to tax and regulate the internet giants – an urgent task beyond national governments and one likely to be a defining political issue in the coming years.
There are proposals for a euro zone budget and finance ministry, and the question of further future integration. And so on. The EU always moves forward. It has other fish to fry.
But everything is at a standstill because the British still can’t figure out a) what sort of Brexit they want; b) whether they can stand by that decision once made and; c) how they can reconcile that decision with their existing international and legal obligations, such as the Belfast Agreement.
This is the hidden cost of Brexit – what economists call the opportunity cost. All that time, effort, energy and money spent dealing with the Brexit shambles which could usefully have been expended elsewhere.
It’s not just the EU; it applies even more in the UK, where Brexit is the only thing that the government does – and the only thing it has done for the last two years.
And it applies in Ireland. Talk to people in Government, especially at the centre of Government, and many say how they struggle trying to find the “bandwidth” – the time, the energy, the capacity – to deal with pressing issues that demand deliberation and decision and implementation.
There are the day-to-day issues of managing public services and juggling budgets. Then there are questions sitting in the Government’s in-tray which have been long-fingered because of Brexit but which can’t be put off forever. Broadband. Reform of the local property tax. Public sector pay. Sláintecare.
Just take Sláintecare, the 10-year reform plan for the health service intended to overhaul and redesign the way public healthcare services are organised. The single biggest element of that reform – separating public and private healthcare – is the subject of a report detailing a roadmap, costings, etc that is currently sitting on the Government’s desk. That’s where it will stay until Brexit is resolved.
Last week the Department of Health published a 2019 action plan – quietly, with little fanfare, press release on a quiet day, report available on our website, etc. Perhaps this is because of this Government’s noted aversion to glossy PR-driven launches, or perhaps it was because there is no decision to throw political weight (and therefore money) behind any of the reforms yet.
Deciding what course of action should be taken on these issues and dozens more requires time and energy to make the decision and then smart politics to implement it. But under the cloud of Brexit it’s impossible to do it. So, as Government insiders attest, everything that can be put on hold is put on hold.
Next general election
And the biggest thing that is on hold is the next general election.
On the outside it’s sometimes hard to see how weak this government is, how its freedom to act and legislate is constrained by that weakness. But inside the administration it’s an everyday reality.
If May can pass the agreement, and the UK enters the transition period, she will probably be bringing her tenure to an end. She will also be calling time on Leo Varadkar’s administration.
For so much Brexit remains the trigger.