So it is done. The Brits, well the 51.9% of those who voted on June 23, have made what could be a disastrous decision to “Leave” the European Union. While much was promised to those who voted Brexit (immigration controls, saving £350m/week in payments to the EU, an extra £100m/week to the UK’s understandably loved NHS) it is becoming clear that none of these are going to be delivered. In fact, no one knows what the UK’s relationship with its closest neighbor is going to look like: a long negotiation lies ahead where the future of the UK and perhaps the whole of Europe or Euro-hood is at stake.
The Brits must negotiate with the EU and the EU must negotiate with the Brits. The EU is the spurned partner and in a far stronger bargaining position. All signs point to it being an extremely acrimonious divorce. There is the understandable fear within the EU and its nation states that the Brexit vote will urge others to leave the union, “Texas Style”, weakening it further still.
So what can be done?
Instead of sketching out the “terms of the settlement” what I want to talk about is the framework for a successful divorce. One that is done with “the children in mind”. By children I mean us hundreds of million “normal folk” who are not part of the political leadership class (the warring parents) but who have to live with what is decided. So the adults need to behave like adults, or in pre-Trump language “Statesmen”.
Learning from History. Start with the treaties signed in Versailles. First, maybe the Big Two of France and Germany should fall back on what they learnt as both victor and vanquished before the EU existed. Both had to sign terrible peace treaty terms in the Palace of Versailles just outside of Paris. France, when it lost the Franco Prussian War with Germany in 1871 (yes we should cite something that happened in the 19th Century!) and then Germany when it lost World War I. Both were pulled into Versailles and signed humiliating treaties. Both of these experienced being the weaker party. The victor each time found that the “negotiated” peace resulted in far, far greater instability when the terrible terms fomented greater anger. It was instability for everyone. And it was long term instability.
Remember too that the whole EU project was put in motion to avoid another war in Europe that impacted all of us.
Hope No. 1 then is that the leaders of the European Union will hold this in mind as they work with the UK on le divorce. Maybe even the negotiations should be held in Versailles so that every party has a reminder of what they should not achieve: humiliation.
Humans are at the core of this. Remember that while the egos of “Brexit Boris” and Nigel “Nuclear Option” Farage brought Europe to this point, the outcome will impact human beings’ lives. Many of those who voted for Brexit did so as they have been marginalized by the forces of globalization where they feel they have no financial stake in society (and the income and wealth distribution numbers show that they are not wrong). While this is a real concern everywhere (we are seeing this in the US too), solving this issue should not be part of the divorce, it just helps explain why some of the Leavers voted how they did.
In addition, 48% of the UK voters wanted to stay in the EU. While there may be a will to punish the blowhards symbolized by Boris & Farage, this should not result in millions of humans being punished.
Instead we need to rise above the understandable will to punish the Political Class of the UK and instead remember that every action will hit individual human lives.
Take a Breath. It would be a start if instead of the EU Big 6 saying that negotiations should begin straight away to accept that this is a process that all of Europe needs to come out of as strong as it possible can. Right now there is real anger in Europe (EU nations plus the many UK voters of the “Remain” camp). Everyone knows that discussions started in anger do not end well. Let’s all breathe and focus on getting a framework together.
Set a goal. If it is collective punishment of everyone in the UK, then we pretty much know that it will result in mutually assured destruction for the economies of Europe (EU and UK). Instead, having taken a breath set out a goal that will result in stability for all of Europe.
What to do with “Brexit Braniac’s”? While it would be tempting to leave them at home (and Farage and Boris should be left), those who campaigned for Brexit need to be accountable for the negotiation. They sold Britain the Brexit “pup” and should not be allowed to jeer from the sidelines and claim they would have gotten a better deal. They should be accountable by being part of the team.
Mediation. America to the Rescue? While it may be yet another “American rescue of Europe”, this is perhaps one that should avoid the loss of life for America’s people. To get to a better outcome for both the EU and the UK, as well as keep any wannabe Boris’s in their box, the EU and UK should get a mediator. There might be a US President with some time on his hands come January!
Take time. Sure the EU needs certainty, but why have another poor neighbor right at Europe’s door. There’s already Greece close to collapse so why do something to weaken Europe by having a poorer UK? Instead, of starting the clock by triggering Article 50, pre-negotiate so that an acceptable agreement can be put in place for an orderly exit.
So, none of this sets out what the final terms should look like. Maybe the UK government will not move forward on leaving the EU: it is unlikely that it will be able to deliver on the promises made by the Leavers.
If, however the Brits move forward with their exit, then both parties should at least start by agreeing that we need to learn from the lessons of the past and get a solid framework in place for delivering stability to all of Europe.
The rest as they say will be history.
Fergus Mellon is a dual American / European citizen. He is also author of Early Stage Professional: starting off right.