The Brexit referendum was a reality check. If the people feel that an institution no longer works for them, they are perfectly comfortable rejecting it. Even one as vast and consequential as the EU. That lesson demands that politicians focus more on the reality and concerns of ordinary people such as migration, creating growth and jobs, instead of the detached and abstract reality that tends to dominate these institutions.
The British have been among our closest friends and allies for as long as anyone can remember. We were strong supporters of UK's EU-membership bid in 1973 and have partnered on many important issues ever since, such as strengthening the internal market and reforming the European budget. Reports prior to the Brexit-referendum showed that The Netherlands would suffer more from a Brexit than most other EU-countries. The Netherlands was therefore disappointed with the result of the referendum.
Directly following the vote there were the usual suspects who saw more Europe as the only solution to the Brexit – as they do with every problem. On the other side, across Europe there were politicians who took this opportunity to plead for EU-exits of their own, including the Netherlands. Both groups of politicians are harmful to the broader support of the European Union, though only the latter does so intentionally.
We, the centre-right Liberal Party, want a European Union that solves real cross-border problems that people are facing and struggling with every single day, such as security, migration, international trade, and climate change. Our approach to European politics is not determined by an institutional vision of the EU, but by the needs of real people.
Among certain British politicians there are high expectations of the UK's future outside the EU. The question of course is whether those expectations are reasonable. The voting on the Brexit referendum resembled the choice of getting on an aeroplane without knowing its destination. Or worse, without even knowing if it has wings. Not until negotiations have started will we get an idea of what the UK will be like outside the EU, or what the EU will be like without the UK. I am pessimistic about the results of the negotiations, because I am afraid they will end up in a lose-lose situation, for several reasons.
Unpreparedness, on top of the divergence in Theresa May's own party, does not promise a good outcome for the Brits or for the EU.
During its EU Membership, the UK has been very pragmatic, always making cost-benefit analyses and also often therefore opting-out. I'm not sure if the UK takes into account that other Member States have a different mentality towards the EU, one that transcends the consideration of merely economic costs and benefits.A country like Germany, for example, is not only in the EU to sell as many BMWs as possible, but also because it wants to keep the EU-27 together for historical reasons.
Not only in Germany, but also in other countries, political groups are on the rise that want their country to leave the EU. The current governments of these countries might be politically motivated not to give the UK a good deal, even if it is against their own economic interests. Giving the UK a good deal would be giving tailwind to these groups. This could explain why the EU is represented during the negotiations by politicians from Brussels who seem to take the result of the Brexit referendum almost personally.
The UK government seems to want to take back control over migration and to take back its legislative autonomy. That is only possible in a so-called "hard Brexit". The Brits, renowned as tough negotiators, are likely to be able to suffer the consequences even if negotiations lead to a hard and painful deal.
British departure from the European Union will leave a power vacuum in Europe, that other countries will fight to fill. The European negotiation after triggering Article 50 will perhaps be less about the Brexit itself and more about establishing a new balance of powers in the EU.
Furthermore, Article 50 was not intended to make life easy for Member States that want to leave. My political party agrees with the Council and the Commission that for the negotiations to start, it is up to the Brits to take the first step and to invoke the Article. Prime Minister May seems to be pressured by members of her own party into making rushed judgements.
By setting the end of March as the deadline for triggering Article 50, the UK has placed itself in a weaker bargaining position. The British PM not only needs to negotiate Brexit in Brussels but also in her own party. To be honest, I have the impression that the UK, at this moment, does not have a negotiating strategy whatsoever. By entering the negotiations unprepared and with no strategy, the UK will most likely lose momentum and crucial time that it needs in order to secure a good exit deal. This unpreparedness, on top of the divergence in the PM's own party, does not promise a good outcome for the Brits or for the EU.
Of course nothing is certain yet, but all these variables could lead to a lose-lose situation. The challenge is to keep the damage as limited as possible. In any case I expect – regretfully – that the Brexit negotiations will take a lot of energy and manpower which now cannot be used in solving the big cross-border problems the EU and our people face.
For now, we are waiting for the UK to develop a realistic approach towards the upcoming negotiations. This will be in the interest of both the UK and the EU.
Anne Mulder is European Affairs Spokesman for the VVD, the centre-right Liberal Party in the Netherlands. This is an article from Bright Blue's latest magazine "The End of Establishment?"