Tuesday, February 25, 2020 | The Willard InterContinental Hotel, Washington, DC
On the same day that the General Affairs Council adopted a decision to authorize the opening of the European Union’s future partnership negotiations with the United Kingdom, MP Michael Link – Member of the German Federal Parliament, Spokesperson for European Affairs of the FDP Parliamentary Group, Member of the Executive Board, Friedrich Naumann Foundation – spoke at an event organized by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation North America office in Washington, DC on the timely subject of “Europe after Brexit.”
With the negotiating directives now adopted, Link explained that the EU and the UK will have the next eight months to work out an ambitious and fair partnership for the future, including an ambitious mandate covering trade, economic cooperation, and security. According to Link, this partnership needs to be robust and negotiated on a level-playing field in order for the EU to be able to act as a strong and respected player on the world stage. A strong economic partnership is especially urgent, because if the EU does not have an agreement in place by December 31, 2020, it will face a long-feared “crash-out” Brexit with no deal on its economic relations with the UK.
Link, however, is skeptical that such a partnership can be achieved within eight months and fears that many parties or spoilers, both from inside and outside of the negotiation, can easily manipulate a negotiation under such a time pressure. Nevertheless, he believes that the economic consequences for the single market, especially for Germany and other member countries of the EU, will be damaging if a free trade agreement is not fully mandated and ratified by the end of this year. Additionally, a prolonged process would be detrimental for relations with the US because both the EU and the UK will be too occupied with their own problems to focus on strengthening the West and the transatlantic alliance.
One possibility for ensuring that the agreement is ratified before year’s end is to lift the requirement that all 27 member states have to ratify it. Along these lines, Link believes that the future of free trade agreements for the EU is “EU-only” agreements. This means that agreements only need to be ratified in the Council of Ministers by the ministers of the EU and the European parliament and not by national parliaments, like the Bundestag.
Yes, Brexit presents a significant loss to the Union, but cooperation within the EU might be easier from now on, particularly when it comes to decision making in the EU on foreign policy issues. The EU has struggled to speak with one voice in part because of the consensus rule, a decision-making procedure that was partly kept in place for this long by the insistence of the UK. The rule led to some unpleasant developments on a particular day in February 2019 that has since been dubbed the “Black Monday of Foreign Policy.” Disagreement and non-action as a result of every EU country having a veto in foreign policy became the norm that day, not the exception. This dealt a serious blow to the EU’s attempts to be taken seriously on the global stage. With the Brits no longer at the table, Link argues that the EU could capitalize on Brexit to attempt the reforms that were not possible before.
With the rise of forces like China and Russia, the choice today is not about national or European sovereignty, it is solely about European sovereignty or no sovereignty at all. Link asserts that it is a rational choice for EU member states to pool their sovereignty in the areas of defense and foreign policy, as they already do in the area of currency. A close partnership, cooperation, and friendship with the US, for example, is only possible if the EU works together on strengthening its own institutions and defending its values at the same time. Given the 21st century reality of foreign interference in sovereign nations on both side of the Atlantic, it should be a logical move on the part of the US and the EU to stand together and cooperate with each other much more, not to undermine each other’s efforts. For example, issues like 5G and Huawei could be best addressed if the EU and US form a joint transatlantic initiative, a single set of forces, that limits each body’s dependency on China.
Despite its flaws and shortcomings, Link is optimistic that the EU, which is still very attractive to many countries seeking membership, is here to stay for the foreseeable future. However, if it does not seize the moment to increase its capacities, capabilities, and means of integration it will fall apart gradually and threaten the transatlantic relationship.