In this newspaper, since the beginning of the Brexit affair, after the referendum, we have always maintained that the European Union had to approach the issue with a visionary attitude, which should not in any way penalize the United Kingdom (which is already penalized simply by leaving the Union, in our opinion). The 27 and the Commission should have offered a great test of maturity and political vision.
These are things that did not happen.
The Brexit process was tackled in Brussels keeping the profile as low as possible, without intervening in any way on the policies, as if it were a fait accompli on the basis of the lines set, quite arbitrarily, by the premier Theresa May. There were two “headlights” of the Union, which were then faded candles: the bureaucratic / regulatory approach, materialized in the 600 pages (though necessary) of the Withdrawal Agreement and the “unitary” one, with which the 27 so far have shown themselves substantially united in this process. United, that is, on nothing, on no vision of the future, as much as the British have shown themselves to do.
It is true that everything starts and is consumed in London, in an internal struggle in the Conservative party and in the evident absence of the Labour party from the debate. But there was already a first mistake by the Union when an impromptu David Cameron came to Brussels to warn that he would hold a referendum on EU membership, and that to avoid a defeat he needed a shred of paper in which vital space and autonomy of the Kingdom within the Union had to be highlighted. The document, pieces of paper without any legal value or political constraint, was granted to him, and, rightly, those whom we then began to call Brexiters, ignored it, then humiliating the prime minister in the referendum. In all these passages in Brussels no one has raised any question, no one was bothered to understand what was happening in Britain and no one started working on a Union position in the event that UK did decide to leave the Union. “Fresh as roses”, said the Italian grandmothers of those who behaved like this.
Because it was clear (and still it is not) what that slogan “Brexit means Brexit” means. The Union should have contributed to filling the meaning of the referendum with content. Instead, nothing; the Union sat there organizing a smart negotiating team and waited for the British delegates. Of course, now it is too late to have a leadership role equal to what Theresa May had by imposing her Brexit model, which, we repeat, was not set in stone.
What we want to say: Norway, for example, refused, through a referendum, to join the EU but is in the Single Market and Schengen. Borrowing the frequent comparison with a separation between spouses, we can say that Oslo opted for an engagement without cohabitation. Switzerland instead chose the path of individual agreements. A referendum decided that it was not the case to join even the European Economic Area, of which Norway is a member.
Two European countries that have chosen different paths to have very close and deep relations with the Union, although they have never been part of it.
When London decides to leave the Union, after more than 40 years, what does Brussels want? Nothing, a team of experts, selected as negotiators is organized to regulate the exit in an orderly way (which, we repeat, is still a necessary thing). No one is thinking of working diplomatically on the British government during the months of waiting before activating Article 50 to help forge an agreement on what Brexit means. The British voters have only said that they wanted to leave the Union, but for example were not asked to vote on the Single Market.
So the Union was not proactive, did not talk or listen to anyone other than the prime minister (the opposition leader went to Brussels only a few weeks ago for the first time, when the process was practically concluded). The EU did not think to listen to and discuss with the world of industry, academia, social organizations. Not to stop Brexit, absolutely, that was a sovereign (self-defeating) vote. But to offer London its collaboration in managing the process.
The Union has not offered a good example, not that better than the spectacle the British political class has offered.
And now we are there to discuss, inevitably, of technicalities, of legal bases, one extra day, or one less, having absolutely no plans for tomorrow if not to say “let’s be close friends”.
When you work together to bring a country to the brink of the precipice and you are probably not able to do anything to save it, it is unlikely that citizens will have a good memory of you, and not just the British ones.