It may be the start of a New Year, but already it has a familiar ring about it as the EU wrestles with some recurring issues.
Two in particular are going to require decisions that will shape the future of the EU over the next decade and beyond. Both present a severe test of the bloc’s unity and its legendary ability to substitute inconclusive fudge for political consensus.
The first, of course, is Brexit, and the second, which I will deal with later, relates to differences of opinion in Eastern Europe. On Brexit, we are reaching the business end of negotiations when Member States’ economic selfinterest begins to run up against the Commission’s much-trumpeted united front. Britain is clear what it wants from the forthcoming talks – an implementation period during which the status quo is largely preserved followed by a comprehensive trade deal which, as David Davis spelled out last week, maintains as much as possible of the current economic co-operation with minimal new barriers. It should include goods, agriculture and services, as well as financial services.
The EU’s problem is this makes just as much sense for the EU27 as it does for the UK. Understandably it must protect the integrity of the Single Market but in doing so it has to avoid any temptation to erect artificial barriers simply to make an example of Britain as a departing member. It needs to swallow hard and, for once, put people above politics. This is possible if, for the purpose of the trade talks, Brussels treats the UK as if it were already a third party country and imagines that one of the world’s largest economies has come seeking the most wide-ranging, mutually beneficial trade agreement ever negotiated.
That is the reality and would enable EU negotiators to enter the discussions seeking solutions not obstructions. Many European politicians I speak to support such an approach, and last month Paolo Gentiloni, the Italian Prime Minister, voiced publicly what other member states are saying behind closed doors when he called for “a tailor-made model for the relationship between the UK and the EU.” I am hopeful this view will prevail.
So, another interesting year ahead in Brussels, and I have not even touched upon how the EU is going to plug the budget deficit left by Britain’s departure. Yours sincerely