Velvet divorce or a hard landing? Europe and Polish-British relations in the light of Brexit

Debate on the consequences of Brexit.


Douglas Alexander, former Minister for European Affairs, UK, ECFR Member
Olaf Osica, Director for Risk Assessment, Polityka Insight

Chaired by

Piotr Buras, ECFR Warsaw

In order to address the uncertainty generated by Brexit, ECFR Warsaw office organised a public debate title “Velvet divorce or a hard landing? Europe and Polish-British relations in the light of Brexit” with the former Labour Minister for European Affairs, Douglas Alexander, and Olaf Osica, Risk Assessment Director at Polityka Insight. The debate was moderated by the head of ECFR Warsaw office, Piotr Buras.

Mr Alexander presented Brexit as the biggest geopolitical, economic and legal challenge for the United Kingdom and a chronic source of uncertainty. Although the formal negotiations following the triggering of the Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union are to last only 18 months, the whole process of leaving the UE consists of 6 separate issues:

  • legal departure from the EU,
  • deciding upon provisional regulations,
  • negotiating permanent EU-UK cooperation mechanisms,
  • UK accession to the WTO,
  • replacing 53 free trade agreements that have been negotiated by EU,
  • re-establishing security and intelligence cooperation.

Each of these issues is in itself complicated and talks are going to be made more difficult by EU’s tough negotiating stance stemming from the need to avoid political contagion after the Brexit referendum.

According to Alexander, British domestic politics is the key to understand Brexit dynamics. David Cameron called the referendum in response to the pressure from the Eurosceptic wing of his Conservative Party and to the threat from UKIP. However, he was unable to combine economic arguments – which were in favour of remaining – with emotional narratives, leading to a victory for Leave. The government of Cameron’s successor, Theresa May, then interpreted the referendum results and public sentiment as a mandate to reject the principle of free movement of persons in the UE. May’s flexibility in the coming negotiations is limited by the internal dynamics of the Conservative Party, which is internally divided and hold a slim majority in the parliament.

While it is unclear if the British government has any clear goal in the negotiations, its key demand – that of limiting migration from the EU to the UK – stands completely at odd with the stance of the rest of the Union, which treats the 4 freedoms as indivisible and refuses to grant any special right to the UK. This fundamental contradiction makes a “hard” Brexit more probable. According to Mr Alexander, a possible compromise solution would entail EU reinterpreting the principle of free movement of persons in order to assuage the fears of British voters.

In the meantime, Alexander argued, both sides should talk their relations and legal regulations in the transitory period, as this will raise the importance of more pragmatic voices. In any case, such talks are necessary given the tight negotiation schedule, EU’s refusal to dabble in pre-negotiations, and the House of Commons signalled demand to trigger the Article 50 in Spring 2017.

The referendum has a multitude of effects. Beside causing chaos in British mainstream parties, it has also reopened the questions of Scottish independence and the status of Northern Ireland. Economic and monetary instability is compounded by a deep uncertainty about the future of both the UK and the EU. UK’s exit will strengthen the hand of Souther European, protectionist states in the EU, while the Union itself will suffer from the loss of global importance and power.

For Poland, Mr Osica argued, Brexit is a calamity, as it will lose its ally in intra-EU debate and will have to deal with uncertainty in relations with its third-largest trade partner. Furthermore, the process will lead the EU into uncharted political directory. Poland needs the UK as a partner that both balances Germany and pushes for further liberalisation of EU market. However, a “soft” Brexit that would allow the UK to retain its influence in the EU would also entail changes – such as the abandonment of the 4 freedoms – disadvantageous to Poland. At this point Osica disagreed with Alexander, claiming that reinterpreting the principle of free movement of persons would be a slippery slope. Alexander countered, however, that these principles are constantly contested and renegotiated, and called for increased flexibility to protect Europe from the dangers of alienation, that European increasingly feel when they look at their institutions.

Both panellists underscored that the negotiation will be conducted in an atmosphere of uncertainty and without a template – Swiss and Norwegian experiences are of limited worth, as these countries have never been a part of the EU. Osica and Alexander also agreed that the EU is remarkably united and tough when confronting the UK. Osica also argued that Poland will be able to weigh in heavily on any negotiations, though he expressed doubts if Polish diplomacy is capable of rising up to the demands of the situation. In his view Poland needs to identify key negotiation areas and remain particularly cautious on the issue of the free movement of persons, to avoid putting the EU on a dangerous path.

Brexit also necessitates new security relations between the UK and the rest of the UE, including the issue of Russia sanction regime. Alexander underscored that British participation in collective security is not up to negotiations, but he admitted that Donald Trumps’s policies and British responses to them remain unknown. Osica, on the other hand, mentioned the importance of defence industry cooperation, noting that its rules need to be re-established. However, he dismissed the importance of British involvement in Eastern Europe, claiming that the UK has largely withdrawn from the region since the 1990s.

Alexander also commented on the issue of Scottish independence, noting that although economic factors should argue decisively against such move, emotional and identity appeals may yet trump economic calculus. However, the Scottish government has not been yet able to gain majority support for independence, making a referendum on the issue extremely dangerous for its political prospects.