Brexit, or the lack of imagination

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Matt Dunham/Associated Press

Since June 23, 2016, the United Kingdom has been confronting a substantial task to leave the European Union after decades of deep cooperation and integration. Over the last two years, the UK political elite, Tories and Labor alike, has demonstrated an absolute lack of imagination and illustrated the inability to think beyond their wishes of a return to an illusory lost exceptionalism. Three weeks prior the fatidic deadline of March 29, 2019, the British political elite is unable to decide on what is next for the UK, a soft Brexit (based on the agreed terms between the May government and the EU), a hard Brexit (no deal), a revocation of Article 50, or an extension of the Article 50. On March 12, the House of Commons rejected the government’s deal, followed on March 13 by a rejection of a no-deal Brexit paving the way for a potential request for a delay.

A delay for what? And towards what outcome? The UK and EU agreed back on November 14, 2018 on two documents: the agreement on the orderly withdrawal of the UK from the EU and the Joint Political Declaration on the framework of future relationship. One of the most contentious points for the UK in the withdrawal agreement is the third Protocol concerning Ireland and North Ireland known as “backstop,” agreeing to create an EU-UK single customs territory. The backstop is “an apt paradox for a problem that may not have a solution.” The backstop would keep the UK in both the customs union and the single market until at least 2020 during which Brussels and London would negotiate the terms of a trade relationship.

The Brexit vote was based on a series of lies and political manipulations over the relationship between the UK and the EU. The UK has demonstrated over its decades in the Union its ability to control sovereignty in areas considered of national sovereignty such as the national currency, immigration and judiciary affairs, and so forth. The UK used its opt-out rights in core competencies. The debate prior to the referendum was tailored around immigration/borders, supposedly high cost of the EU membership (money to be utilized to the Health and Human Services), and national prestige allowing the UK to reestablish its grandeur internationally.

Two years later, the illusion of a positive outcome, potentially being a hard Brexit, remains as a possibility. The lack of imagination has been so visible throughout the process and since the end of the UK-EU negotiations. The last four months have exposed the inability of a political elite to think, govern and lead. It has been months of political talks and votes in London with a Prime Minister losing time after time votes on the same document thinking that the outcome of a new vote on a same document could have a different ending. Furthermore, PM May has failed to lead and unite her party, let alone the nation, to agree on the terms of a departure, yet manages to survive no confidence vote and hold her position. This demonstrates another level of political folly. At what point the House of Commons massively rejecting May’s deal, on two occasions, think that keeping the same captain defending the same deal would lead to a different outcome.

In a case of a decision to extend the Article 50 and a reopening of the negotiations, two questions arise. First, are the 27 EU Member States convinced that new rounds of negotiation will lead to a different outcome? PM May said it clearly, “the EU will want to know what use we will make of such an extension.” And second, will the negotiating team from the UK be different a different one bringing new propositions with regards to Northern Ireland to the table? In the current deal, the EU has rightfully protected one of its member states, Ireland, and the core of the Union, the common market. It is quite unimaginable to have the EU undermining one of its members to accommodate one exiting. Furthermore, seeking an extension to the negotiations could poison the debate ahead of the European elections on May 23-26 and require the UK to hold a campaign for the European Parliament elections.

Now the organization of a new referendum on Brexit to put back the decision in the hands of the citizens would send a mix message. The new referendum would be less about democracy and more about the political elite hiding its inabilities to lead and govern behind another popular vote. Regardless of the outcome of the 2016 vote, the government had a mandate and failed to deliver, which has become a common trend across the transatlantic community. After three years of toxic rhetoric, the outcome of new referendum tipping in favor of a remain vote could be damaging in the long-term for domestic and European politics. Can the UK strive back in the EU after this tumultuous period like nothing had ever happened? An optimist could argue that the EU, the 27 capitals and the UK have learnt the lessons being on the edge of a precipice and are willing to move head with substantial reforms by deepening the integration process. Why not?

Theresa May back in 2016 said, “Brexit means Brexit.” The initial understanding was that the UK will be leaving at the end of the two-year period. Today, “Brexit means Brexit” illustrates a total lack of imagination, of leadership and policy-making. Over two years, the UK has been unable to think about its own future outside the EU. How can the UK be in any position of strength in negotiating future relationships with world actors? “forging a new role for Britain in the world”? and to legislate in re-drafting and voting on a new set of rules and laws post-EU? “Brexit means Brexit” has become the mantra of a lost nation.

(COPYRIGHT 2019 BY POLITIPOND. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. THIS MATERIAL MAY NOT BE PUBLISHED, BROADCAST, REWRITTEN OR REDISTRIBUTED WITHOUT PERMISSION).

Agenda on Migration – Forget about Soft Power and Solidarity

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With the death of 600 migrants in April, the EU and its Member States have been working on finding a solution to a serious and pressing regional crisis. In a matter of a month several proposals, with diverging philosophical orientation, have been drafted. On the one hand, the Juncker’s proposal, initiated by the European Commission, seeks in deepening the integration process through an harmonization and homogenization of EU immigration and asylum policies. While on the other hand, the Council of the EU agreed on the creation of a military CSDP naval mission, EU Naval Force in the Mediterranean (EUNAVFOR-Med), in order to disrupt smugglers. Even thought the Juncker’s proposal addresses a long-term need, it fosters opposition in most EU Member States, while EUNAVFOR only provides a quick and superficial fix to the problem of mass migrations. So far the EU and its Member States have not found the proper answer to this crucial regional crisis.

The Juncker’s Proposal: European Agenda on Migration

The European Commission presented its European Agenda on Migration on May 13th in order to contain and solve the current crisis taking place in the Mediterranean sea. The publication of the Commission’s agenda is a reaction of the massive influx of migrants and refugees coming from Libya, a transit country (read here a previous analysis on the migration crisis). Ensuing the largest human tragedy causing the death of 600 migrants in mid-April and an extraordinary European summit meeting leading to no real lasting solutions, Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the Commission, declared on announcing its Agenda that “We will be ambitious. We will be bold.”

The Agenda produced by the Commission laid out several policies. The first one consists in finding solutions through immediate actions:

  • Tripling the capacities and assets for the Frontex joint operations Triton (off the coasts of Italy) and Poseidon (off the coasts of Greece) in order to save lives;
  • destroying criminal smuggling networks through a possible Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) operation in the Mediterranean to dismantle traffickers’ networks and fight smuggling of people. Federica Mogherini, EU foreign policy chief, was at the UN Security Council on May 11th seeking for a UNSC resolution allowing EU Member States “to deploy military force to seize and destroy smugglers’ ships before they take on their human cargo”;
  • Relocation of migrants;
  • an EU-wide resettlement scheme to offer 20,000 places distributed in all Member States. The EU budget will dedicate an additional €50 million in 2015/16 to solve this problem;
  • Working with third countries in order to solve the root causes of migrations;
Source: EurActiv
Source: EurActiv

The infogram produced by EurActiv (see above) illustrates which EU Member States are the largest recipients of migrants and refugees and the main destinations. No surprise in finding Germany, France, Sweden and Italy as the main destination for migrants and refugees.

The second dimension of the Commission’s Agenda is about managing migration better on the long run.

  • first, the EU wants to address the root causes of migrations, crack down on smugglers and traffickers, and provide clarity in return policies;
  • second, develop better border management capabilities and increasing the power of Frontex;
  • third, develop a common asylum policy at the EU level. The Commission wants to create a Common European Asylum System;
  • fourth, a new policy on legal migration in order to attract skilled workers to the EU. The Commission wants to solidify a Europe-wide scheme, called the Blue Card Directive;
Source: European Commission
Source: European Commission

National Oppositions to the Juncker’s Proposal

All the EU Member States are not welcoming these new directives. For instance, the United Kingdom has announced that it would not participate in any quota scheme to distribute refugees across EU. In the case of Britain and Ireland, both countries have an ‘opt out clause’ allowing them to decide to participate or not on a specific program of this nature. The Home Office of the UK already released a statement saying that “We [Britain] will not participate in any legislation imposing a mandatory system of resettlement or relocation.” For Denmark, the country has an opt-out right where they do not participate at all. “The exemptions granted to the three countries are making it difficult for the commission to impose binding quotas on the 25 remaining EU member states, EU sources told AFP.”

The position of several EU Member States challenges the concept of European solidarity. “The European Council clearly stated that we need to find European solutions,” said First Vice-President Frans Timmermans “based on internal solidarity and the realisation that we have a common responsibility to create an effective migration policy.” Dimitris Avramopoulos, Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship Commissioner, underscored the same message when saying that “In a spirit of greater solidarity, we are determined to implement a comprehensive approach that will improve significantly the management of migration in Europe.”

France already announced over the weekend that it was against the provision (read here a piece by Politico on France’s position). In case the quotas were to be implemented, “France would be asked to accept 14.17 percent of all those who reach the EU, while Germany would receive 18.42 percent, Italy 11.84 percent, and Spain 9 percent.” Instead France would be in favor to increase the number of asylum seekers. “Asylum is a right, attributed according to international criteria …” said French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, “That is why the number of its beneficiaries cannot be subject to quotas, one is an asylum seeker or not.” The Commission’s plan was rejected by seven other EU Member States, Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, and Poland. These ought to be added to the three EU Member States with opt-out rights like Britain, Ireland and Denmark.

The difference between the quota system and the current asylum rules is quite simple. By implementing a quota system, the Commission seeks in helping frontline states, like Greece, Italy and Spain, and sharing the burden across the EU. While the current system of asylum, established under the Dublin II, stipulates that the asylum seekers ought to ask for asylum in the country of arrival. The Commission’s plan is in fact a strategy in order to avoid frontline countries to be overflow by migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers in case of an explosion of migrating flux as predicated for 2015 and the coming years.

This agenda produced by the Commission is unlikely to be adopted as such. The foreign ministers discussed the agenda on May 18th, and will be preparing for the final plan for the June 25 EU leaders meeting.

The Military Option – EUNAVFOR to Combat Migration

Photo: Lynsey Addario for The New York Times
Photo: Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

Ensuing the May 18th meeting between European foreign and defense ministers, the EU agreed on the launch of a CSDP naval mission in order to stop and disrupt smugglers in the Mediterranean. In the conclusions of the meeting, the Council argued that “This [global security environment] calls for a stronger Europe, with a stronger and more effective Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP).”

The EU naval force – EUNAVFOR Med – will be based in Rome and headed by Italian Rear Admiral Enrico Credendino. EUNAVFOR Med will cover the Southern Central Mediterranean road and work in partnership with Libyan authorities. It will receive an initial 12 month mandate and a budget of €11.82 million for the first phase. As per HR Mogherini, EUNAVFOR will follow a specific progression: first stage, planning and assessment of smuggling networks; second stage, searching, seizing and disruption of assets of smugglers within the framework of international law.

However, in order to launch the naval mission, several crucial aspects will need to be discussed and agreed on. First, the EU will need more talks, and then reach an agreement on a resolution, under Chapter VII, from the United Nations Security Council. So far, it is yet unclear if the UNSC will be granting a resolution to the EU for such type of operation off the coast of Libya as it could establish a precedent for other maritime migration routes throughout the world. Additionally, Russia has already expressed its opposition to the use of jets and helicopters for the mission. Second, the EU Member States will have to agree on whom will be providing the required military capabilities and forces. It was already a problem with the Frontex’s operation Triton, so it may be another difficult negotiations for this one.

Last but not least, some wonders about the usefulness of such military operation. For instance, “Military operations in the Mediterranean are only really likely to have any impact” said Elizabeth Collett, the director of the Migration Policy Institute Europe, to the New York Times, “as one very small piece in a far more comprehensive strategy to address smuggling.”

Another Lost Opportunity?

The migration crisis illustrates once again a central problem for the EU and its Member States, the Member States.  How to solve a global crisis requiring greater cooperation and integration without deepening the EU? In other words, more Europe is necessary in order to address a crisis as a bloc, but some Member States are either calling for less Europe or are cheery-picking. The challenge of the Juncker Commission and other EU institutions is how to advance the interests of the Union when most Member States are not willing to deepen and increase cooperation at the EU level.

Picking the Juncker’s proposal would allow the EU and its Member States to harmonize their immigration policies at the EU level. Choosing the Member States’ route of military action will only be a quick and temporary fix. In any case, both proposals do not address the root causes of the problems of mass migrations from MENA and Central Africa. If the EU and its Member States want to be a ‘security provider,’ they will have to do more than a naval mission in the middle of the Mediterranean sea.

(Copyright 2015 by Politipond. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission).