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Resolving Brexit impasse requires more imagination

Brussels and London need clear strategy and thinking to help deliver a smooth exit.

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A demonstrator reacts to the crushing defeat of Mrs May's Brexit deal.Taken overall, now is the time for Brussels, not just London, to redouble Brexit diplomacy to help ensure that a hard, disorderly exit doesn't come to pass.

UK PRIME Minister Theresa May suffered a devastating defeat on Tuesday on her Brexit withdrawal deal, losing by a massive 202 to 432 votes. Westminster is in potential turmoil, following the biggest parliamentary defeat for any government in a century, but the ballot should also be a wake-up call for Brussels and the EU-27 too.

UK governments have only been defeated in the House of Commons by a margin of more than 100 votes three times in the last century, and Tuesday's ballot - which Mrs May said was "the most significant vote many of us have faced in our political careers" - easily exceeded those defeats. All of those previous votes were in 1924, underlining what a historic reversal Tuesday's vote represented, and why Mrs May's remaining authority has been shredded.

With her Brexit withdrawal deal potentially now dead, and a change of government ever more possible, pressure will also intensify on Brussels to show more political imagination to reach a resolution to the current impasse. This includes potentially extending the two-year Article 50 process, which would require the unanimous support of the EU-27, with current end- of-March deadlines fast approaching.

On Tuesday, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker announced a change in his schedule and travelled back to Brussels for emergency Brexit-related meetings. Importantly here, it is not just Mr Juncker who has signalled fresh talks with the United Kingdom, but also the German government which promised on Tuesday to launch a fresh round of Brexit talks as soon as practical.

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While virtually all EU leaders had said there is no scope for further negotiation on the deal, there could yet be overwhelming incentives for both sides to try to get the withdrawal agreement, or a significantly new version of it, "over the line".

More imagination and flexibility is especially important given that all sides want to avoid a no-deal scenario. This is because forecasts indicate such an outcome could be very damaging not just to the United Kingdom, but also Ireland and continental Europe alike.

As a Remainer in 2016, who wishes Brussels well and wants to see the United Kingdom continue to be in a close, cooperative relationship with the EU-27 going forward, it has been painful to watch Mrs May's hapless administration make mistake after mistake with the Brexit process. A different tone in negotiations could have made a real difference alongside a coherent negotiating strategy that didn't artificially draw so many supposed "red lines" so early.

Yet, the backstory here is that the EU itself has not played a faultless game either. This is despite the plaudits it rightfully receives for proving a far more disciplined, effective negotiator than many in London anticipated two years ago.

While the UK's negotiation strategy and vision has been "missing in action", Brussels has also struggled to define what Brexit should mean, partly because this forms part of wider, difficult questions around where the EU is headed in coming years. To be clear, Brussels has offered up numerous opportunities over the last two years to Britain, and explained repeatedly what these are, but there could potentially have been greater willingness to think beyond off-the-shelf, standard options.

Of course, many across the continent have being concerned about the threat to the EU of a potentially successful - or at least the appearance of a successful - Brexit in coming years, and understandably do not want to be seen to shift positions fundamentally solely because of pressures from London. Yet, especially if a UK withdrawal agreement is ultimately agreed, there will be growing requirement for the EU-27 to think more "out of the box" as the next wave of negotiations get underway during the transition period.

Moreover, in what has been an inherently political negotiation over the withdrawal deal the last two years, the EU has sometimes been legalistic with the process in a way that would have made it hard for any UK government, let alone this very incompetent one, to deliver. For instance, the withdrawal deal, and the separate one to set up a new relationship, are exceptionally hard to be undertaken entirely in isolation, as the Northern Irish border issue underlines. Yet there has sometimes been a doctrinaire view on this issue, which underlines what a monumental mistake it was for Mrs May to trigger Article 50 before she had a proper negotiating strategy.

Lack of imagination by Brussels in Brexit talks potentially stems from initial complacency in some quarters of the EU over the concerns UK voters expressed in the referendum, which may have been dismissed too easily in 2016 as British exceptionalism. However, even Emmanuel Macron admitted last year that his country might vote for Frexit if a similar referendum were held in his country.

Moreover, some EU-27 decision makers, although initially concerned that Brexit could lead to a domino effect across the continent, have perhaps come to see the UK's departure as a "problem" that may even be positive for the EU, especially in a context where polls in 2016 and 2017 have shown popular support for the EU at record levels across much of the continent. In part, this stems from a long-held perception in parts of the EU that further integration tends to only happen through crises.

Yet, this has potentially risked underplaying the full scale of the challenges facing the EU, of which Brexit is just one, which will collectively determine its future place in the world and help frame its future relationship with the United Kingdom.

These range from Schengen and Eurozone reform to external challenges like an emboldened Russia, the future of Nato, and the relationship with the United States under President Donald Trump with his calls for the EU to be broken up.

Taken overall, now is the time for Brussels, not just London, to redouble Brexit diplomacy to help ensure that a hard, disorderly exit doesn't come to pass. Delivering a smoother departure needs clear strategy and thinking on all sides to deliver on a new phase of constructive partnership that can hopefully bring benefits for both at a time of significant geopolitical turbulence.

  • The writer is an Associate at the London School of Economics.

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