Don’t be fooled by the friendly Brexit goodbyes


LONDON and Brussels are two hours apart by train but today, the day the UK officially leaves the European Union (EU), the two cities will feel worlds apart.

The Brits are planning a Brexit celebration worthy of a downtrodden colony freed from the shackles of imperialist rule.

A new coin has been minted for the occasion, trumpeting “peace, prosperity and friendship with all nations”. There will be a light show to mark the UK regaining its “independence”. Never mind that the country didn’t adopt the euro, wasn’t part of the borderfree Schengen Area, and, according to its own citizenship test, was last invaded in 1066. The slogan of “take back control” has stuck.

The officials and diplomats steering the 27-member EU see things a little differently. There will be no coin, or light show, but plenty of funereal sobriety. This is the firstever departure of a big member state, and it’s a palpable loss: Britain will take with it 14% of the EU’s GDP, 40% of its military power and 13% of its population. Brexit is a “tragic geopolitical disaster”, according to Dutch Finance Minister Wopke Hoekstra. It’s a “loselose,” according to Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator of the divorce papers.

Both the cheers and the tears seem extreme at first glance, considering how little will change on the ground today. The transition agreement struck as part of Brexit means that, for the next 11 months, the UK will be treated as if it were still part of the EU (though Britain’s official presence in Brussels will recede). Free movement of goods, capital and labour will continue as before. Talks on a new free trade agreement will likely be tough, but the reality of geography and the intertwined nature of the UK and EU economies means there will be an incentive to keep a close relationship.

And while the Brexiteers champion “Global Britain” as a free-market counterweight to a protectionist EU, we have yet to see a real divide on trade and geopolitics. On cybersecurity risks from China, both the UK and the EU have resisted pressure from US President Donald Trump to ban Huawei Technologies Co Ltd from their 5G mobile networks, while also refusing to give Beijing’s market power a free pass.

When it comes to taxing technology companies like Facebook Inc or Inc, the UK has found itself on the same side of the argument as France and Italy, proposing a national levy on digital services that has enraged Trump. And on Iran, the UK has broadly stood by France and Germany on the nuclear deal.

This entente won’t last long, however. Both the UK and the EU are trying to carve out a place for themselves on a world stage that’s dominated by the US and China. The Brits aspire to retreat from the world’s biggest single market in favour of a soft-power, light-touch island economy — experts have imagined Singapore-on-Thames, the Canada of Europe, or “Belgium with nukes”.

The EU is going in the opposite direction, one that recalls its history during the Cold War. When the UK joined the EU’s precursor organisation in 1973, along with Ireland and Denmark, continental powers like France saw it as a trade-off: Europe would mechanically become more Atlantic and more economically liberal, but it would also grow in stature and find its own voice as a world power between the US and the USSR.

Today, as the UK leaves, the trade-off has been reversed. The EU is mulling a less Atlantic, less liberal, but more integrated bloc that would respond to citizens’ concerns and counterbalance the likes of Trump and China.

Brexit is therefore likely to be seen as an opportunity for closer EU integration, seen as key to achieving both geopolitical and technological sovereignty. A more concentrated bloc is precisely what the Brits fought hard to prevent.

Closer eurozone integration, for example, was one catalyst behind the UK’s departure. While the Germans will mourn the departure of a pro-market, economically liberal voice, the naturally dirigiste French can barely contain their glee. “The British have been a permanent pain in the backside since 1973,” former French minister Alain Lamassoure told Le Monde. “Brexit lifts a handbrake on Europe.”

The next 11 months will be a crucial fight between these competing aspirations. The EU will seek to bind Britain close to its regulatory orbit to avoid it becoming a bridgehead for US influence; the UK, meanwhile, will be tempted to strike closer ties with the Americans to offset the loss of frictionless trade with its large neighbour. So far, there is more convergence than divergence between the two sides. But Washington and Beijing aren’t sitting still. The mood could get ugly soon. — Bloomberg

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.