Last week, a handwritten document photographed outside Downing Street appeared to show that the government reckons the "French are likely to be most difficult" when it comes to Brexit negotiations. Fair enough. Since forever, the Brits have been pissing off the French by not knowing their boucherie from their boulangerie and, ever since the 1960s, when President de Gaulle tried to veto UK entry into the Common Market, relations have been strained. Even Tony Blair’s famous address in fluent French to the National Assembly in 1998 failed to achieve anything like the so-called "special relationship" that the UK apparently enjoys with the US.
With France fearful that a soft Brexit will allow far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen to push for France to exit the EU, too, it’s unlikely that the French government is going to give us an easy ride. So who, then, should we be relying on to hold our hand through this mess?
Will the Netherlands be Nexit for Brexit? Perhaps. While the Dutch used to be synonymous with tolerance, leading by example (the Netherlands was a founding member of the European Union and from the 1970s onwards has pioneered the legalisation of prostitution, soft drugs, euthanasia and gay marriage), support for immigration and the European project is now at an all-time low. Many are now calling for the country to drop the euro and leave the EU altogether.
What does this mean for the UK? Answer: they aren’t going to be a pushover. “Anyone in the UK thinking that the Netherlands – or for that matter, Sweden and Denmark – are Britain's 'natural allies' who are bound to put in a good word for us are going to be sorely disappointed,” says Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London. “Mainstream politicians there do have to worry about not sounding too Europhile but they also need to make sure that the UK doesn't get such a great deal that it allows Dutch sceptics to point to our success.”
Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, is up for re-election next September and will be pretty keen to keep the electorate on side. Recent polling says that 58% of the German public think Berlin should not be open to compromise with Britain over its EU departure, and instead think Merkel should take a firm negotiating position.
This isn’t good news for May and hard Brexit. “The UK has displayed a decided inability to gauge what it can reasonably expect by way of support from key member states, notably Germany. This has been very much in evidence in the disappointed hopes that Germany would be malleable on free movement of people,” says Iain Begg, research fellow at LSE. “There are some systematic incentives: Germany, the Netherlands and (especially) Ireland rely much more on the UK as a market for their exports than, say, Italy; equally, Frankfurt is the most obvious rival to the City of London in attracting some of the financial and business services that the UK values so much, so that we should not expect favours from their governments.”
Bale agrees. He says that, as a founding member, Germany won't be up for anything which splits the EU or makes it look weak. “Business there is important but it doesn't dictate policy, which is all about stabilising a potentially chaotic continent and expanding markets. The Germans will kick up – they already have – if they catch the UK trying a 'divide and rule' negotiating strategy.”
Poland joined the EU in 2004. Its economy has expanded dramatically since then and a recent poll showed 81% of Poles want to stay. However, with eastern European workers bearing the brunt of UKIP and Vote Leave’s attacks on Europe, the relationship is changing.
Polish perceptions of Britain as the place to go are now, apparently, beginning to change. Henryka Bochniarz, a former Polish minister of trade and industry who now heads her country’s equivalent of the CBI, says: “In the media, small incidents [attacks on Polish people], which were probably on the fifth page of your newspapers, were on the front pages in Poland. So people will be looking to other countries and not to the UK.”
As well as this, central and eastern European countries have an interest in defending the right of their citizens who work in Britain. “Poland has clout – and, while it, like other eastern member states, feels an affinity for the UK as a market liberal force, it is also going to insist on free movement if the UK wants anything like single market membership” says Bale.
Italy and Spain
At last! Britain might have some allies (or frenemies) on board for Brexit. According to Bale: “Italy and Spain have gone through economic agony to stay in the Eurozone: they are therefore the last countries to allow the UK to free ride and, besides, they become rather more important, being mid-sized member states, with us out of the way.”
However, with Euroscepticism on the rise in Italy (although there is no overwhelming political consensus against the single currency right now) and fears of populist forces beating established parties, QuItaly might still be a thing and the UK can't count on their support for a generous approach to negotiations.
After a 40-plus year relationship, it's a sorry end for all involved.
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