Theresa May talks tough – but the EU doesn’t have to

What EU officials can learn from Mexico's President


Theresa May’s stance on Brexit has sought to reinforce an image of herself as a ‘tough cookie’, especially as she tried to place government before parliament.

The EU’s hostile reaction was party a response to this, but it has also something to do with its own ingrained habits and a certain sense of entitlement – a bit like a big bank that knows it’s too big to fail.

German MEP Manfred Weber – a conservative politician and a prominent figure in Brussels and Strasbourg – recently told the Guardian that the European Parliament will become ‘a very difficult partner’ in the Brexit negotiations.

Weber is happy now that the EU Parliament will definitely have a say on the terms of the British divorce from the EU. With barely concealed euphoria, he said:

“I trust you share my view that the European Parliament will play a crucial role in defending the interests of the European people in the Brexit negotiations.”

This comment triggers an array of questions. For a start, what interests will be fought over exactly? What European people did Weber mean? Is there an indivisible one? And what about the growing inequalities and social divisions – exacerbated by the ill-conceived euro – that also played a huge part in the British referendum?

Theresa May’s eagerness to trigger Article 50 rests with the first part of paragraph 1, ‘Any member state may decide to withdraw from the Union’, which then crucially continues, ‘in accordance with its own constitutional requirements.’

All the EU could legitimately – and vigorously – object to was allowing the UK government to trump the UK parliament. This won’t happen now, and democracy should be allowed to take its course, in line with the rules in place. (The In/Out referendum shouldn’t have been divised in such simplistic terms, but this is a moot argument now.)

The Lisbon treaty – wrapping up Article 50 – famously agrees with the European project’s earlier principle of maximum fairness. It’s a very democratic treaty, affirming that the union isn’t set in stone and doesn’t put shackles on anyone.

It feeds on 1930s anti-fascist activist Altiero Spinelli’s vision of Europe, one that seems to be largely forgotten: in order to justify free movement of capital, free movement of people has been hypocritically upheld as an EU fundamental value – human shields.

If the European peoples – in the plural, Mr Weber – were really a concern of today’s elites, then the euro – capital’s essential vehicle – wouldn’t have been brought about the way it has.

Across the Atlantic similar dynamics are at a play. Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto is admirably putting up with Donald Trump’s provocations. Peña Nieto is playing the democratic card – unwilling to pay for a border wall, he has however made sure that the US know Mexico will cooperate on all other levels.

Peña Nieto has behaved like this in the past as well, displaying all along a strong feeling for diplomatic moderation. (Although El País sharply criticised him for being too deferential.

Last September, just a few hours after meeting Peña Nieto, El País reports Trump publicly

“reiterated his contempt, xenophobia and racism towards Mexicans [and] restated that Mexico would pay for the construction [of the border wall], adding the playful note: ‘They don’t know this yet’.”

Despite tough talk from May, the EU would do well to turn down the volume.

Dissent at that level is better displayed by a refined diplomacy, one that calmly acknowledges democratic outcomes while seeking to defend legitimate goals. Taking a leaf out of Peña Nieto’s book wouldn’t be a bad start.

Alessio Colonnelli has written for The Independent, Politico, Foreign Policy, Open Democracy and the LSE blog Euro Crisis in the Press.

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