Ingrid Shikova: Shakespearean Brexit drama continues

Turning differentiated integration into smart integration is crucial for the EU

For the UK, EU membership was a pragmatic choice, not a romantic story. However, the country found itself in the middle of a project underpinned by the “ever closer union” principle, which did not fit London's idea of European integration, says Ingrid Shikova, professor in EU policies, in an interview to Europost.

Prof. Shikova, the EU is facing extremely difficult talks with the UK. Will Brussels be able to protect the interests of Europeans?

As with any divorce, setting the parameters of future relations is no easy task, especially when it comes to ending a 47-year-old relationship. For the UK, EU membership was a pragmatic choice motivated by better trade prospects and strengthening the British economy, not a romantic story with a sense of European belonging. However, the country found itself in the middle of a project underpinned by the “ever closer union” principle, with increasingly sweeping integration policies, which did not fit London's idea of European integration. It is well-known that the UK has not been following the common EU trajectory for a long time. In that sense, we would do well to remember Winston Churchill's words to Charles de Gaulle: “For get this quite clear, every time we have to decide between Europe and the open seas, it is always the open seas we shall choose.” Perhaps this sentence best describes the root cause of the separation between the UK and the EU. But leaving the EU on 31 January 2020 did not put an end to the problems - the Shakespearean drama Brexit is not over. The upcoming negotiations will in no way be easier than those that preceded them. Undoubtedly, both sides have an economic incentive to ensure close enough cooperation, but it is also clear that the EU will not offer the UK the same terms it offers full members. I think that the unity that EU Member States demonstrated in dealing with Brexit will continue, and it will take the shape of protecting European interests.

The transition period for Brexit is only until the end of the year. What compromises would be considered reasonable for Brussels?

 Signing an agreement by the end of 2020 seems to be 'mission impossible' at this point. What is more important, however, is the main options on the table. According to UK's Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay: “The objective is to have a zero tariff, zero quota, broadly ambitious trade policy, but to do that in parallel with our talks with the rest of the world. And in particular with the US.” The European Commission is considering negotiating separate, limited-scope deals in four or five sectors, including trade, fishing, security and foreign policy, transportation and aviation, but it would prefer to strike a trade deal with “an overarching institutional framework”.

If we look at how the EU's relations with third countries have been traditionally set up - with Norway, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine and Canada - none of these models provides a ready solution for the EU-UK relations. This is why it is rather likely that both countries will be looking for a unique agreement, something that has not been applied before. One thing is certain, the UK will have to make a crucial choice on access to the European market, fully understanding that the more access it is granted to the single market, the more obligations it will have to take on. The EU will naturally defend the integrity of the single market, but it also has an interest to ensure favourable trade conditions for European companies. Time is ticking and so negotiations need to be fast-paced - this will also be a factor in reaching a compromise.

Would a trade deal modelled after СЕТА be beneficial to the EU?

The Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement between the EU and Canada, known as CETA, provides for free trade of manufactured goods and some agricultural products, but a very limited access to the services market. Canada is free to pursue its own trade policy, but has to consider a number of arrangements - like fulfilling the rules of origin. A standard free trade agreement in the vein of the Canadian one, which does not cover a large chunk of the services sector, would cause serious damages to the British economy. This is why the UK supporters of the Canadian model insist on a “CETA plus” - in other words, a free trade agreement that will encompass the services sector. It is hard to say at this point whether this kind of agreement would be beneficial to the EU - that depends on what it entails and the concrete stipulations that are agreed upon. As I said, the EU will not be willing to offer the UK the same terms and privileges that full members of the bloc enjoy. But let us not forget that geography also plays a role. For example, fishing issues will be an important point in the trade negotiations.

You are lobbying for a “smart integration” in Europe. What does it entail and will it happen?

 Differentiated integration is one of the important themes in the discussion on the future of the EU. What does “differentiated integration” mean? This term encompasses “two-speed Europe”, “multi-speed Europe”, “Europe a la carte”, “Europe of a core and periphery”, “variable geometry Europe”, “avant-garde Europe”, “concentric circles Europe”, “Europe with a pioneering group” and so on and so forth. The main question we are asking ourselves is whether and how introducing the principle of differentiated integration can help push cooperation forward, preventing struggles and stagnation in the integration process, or whether it would result in a fragmented EU with unpredictable dynamics between the Member States going forward.

There are several question that should be treated with care so that differentiated integration can become smart integration, i.e. have a positive effect on the development of the European project: preserving the core values and principles of the EU and maintaining the existing European legislation; having a mandatory foundation of policies and legislation that are adopted by all Member States; transparency in governing differentiated integration; solidarity and accountability; ensuring inclusivity for every country that is willing and ready to join.

What does the SMART framework for governing differentiated integration include?

This is an acronym for Strategic (goals), Manageable (model for the governance of the process of achieving goals), Acceptable (support from citizens towards achieving the goals), Reasonable and Resourced (finding the right balance and approach to implementing differentiated integration, including financial resources) and Transparent (clarity, transparency and legitimacy in the decision-making process).

 What are the steps towards achieving it?

 First, the common political goal of the EU should be clearly defined. If that is building an “ever closer union”, then “opting out” of that goal and the policies paving the way for its fulfilment should not be allowed. In that regard, Brexit is a telling example. Regularly opting to not be part of policies that are fundamental for the EU, essentially led to the complete alienation and eventual departure of the UK from the European project.

Second, concrete policies and legislation should be created based on the common political goal, which should then be binding for all Member States, no opting out. Temporary differentiation may be needed for countries that are not fully prepared, in which case they will be assisted in overcoming their difficulties.

The third step is carefully determining the areas in which differentiation is acceptable.

Fourth, turning differentiated integration into smart integration presupposes a thorough analysis of potential negative effects on countries that remain on the outside.

You are talking about integration in a time when concerns are growing that the European Green Deal will divide the EU even more. Are those concerns legitimate?

The desire and ambition of the EU to lead the way in combating climate change are commendable. The European Green Deal is a significant step in that direction. But I believe that there are two important prerequisites for it to truly impact climate change. First, the European diplomats must convince the rest of the countries around the world, especially the US, China, India and Russia, to go down that road, which is a daunting task. Second, enough money must be allocated to achieving the goals of the deal, including aiding countries and regions facing serious socioeconomic challenges arising from the transition to carbon-neutral economy. This could become a source of contention, as Poland has indicated. Some economists' calculations show much larger sums needed for reaching the deal's goals. A much greater degree of solidarity will be needed.

The EC is proposing a new enlargement methodology, under which talks would move in reverse as well. Is this not a way to keep the Western Balkans out?

The Balkans have always been subject to geostrategic interests. Today, the race to impact and establish spheres of influence in this region is as strong as ever. Russia, China and Turkey are becoming increasingly active in that regard. The uncertain progress of the countries in the Western Balkans towards full EU membership and the lack of clarity on whether such membership is even attainable in the foreseeable future allow those who want to strengthen their influence in that part of Europe to do so. The instability of the Western Balkans could lead to the development of certain socioeconomic and political processes, it could threaten the implementation of the necessary reforms and postpone the EU membership of Western Balkan countries indefinitely, and it could even completely scratch it.

 Will the new methodology at least make France change its position?

France is set to hold local elections in March and the public attitudes in the country towards the EU enlargement are not positive. The EC has created this new methodology for conducting negotiations, and it is specifically intended to get around France's veto. Let me paraphrase French King Henry IV's famous words: “Paris vaut bien une messe” (Paris deserves a Mass) - greenlighting the start of negotiations with the two Balkan countries deserves a new approach. Something worth noting about the new methodology is the expanded role of EU Member States in the accession process. This could create more opportunities for positive influence, but it can also create additional risks. In my opinion, the problem lies not so much in the necessity for a new methodology as in whether the negotiating parties have the necessary political will. As for the proposed option for talks to move in reverse as well, it is essentially already being exercised with Turkey. Nevertheless, I am optimistic about the process and I hope that 2020 will see the start of accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania. Of course, the two countries have a lot of work to do, but the desire for European integration should only be encouraged. Disappointed pro-Europeans turn into Eurosceptics.
France also signalled a resurgence of the so-called Weimar Triangle. Will there be another regrouping of the “friendly circles” in the EU after the UK's exit from the bloc?

The UK's exit from the bloc will inevitably cause some shifting and moving in the EU, at the very least because its balancing presence on some key issues is now gone. But its veto on others is gone too. Traditionally, France and Germany have been the driving force of the European integration, but they also tend to exhibit the “owner's reflex”, as the founders of the European project. As a big country, Poland is trying - to a certain extent - to fill the spot of the Eurosceptic, which was vacated by the UK. In that sense, the Weimar Triangle would be helpful - there are a lot of differing positions on the future of the union, which will have to be overcome. It is well-known that the European project is working only when France and Germany are in agreement and act in partnership. What should not be overlooked, however, is the fact that the French-German engine will start functioning effectively and in higher gear only if France, as represented by President Macron, manages to implement a series of necessary and extremely challenging reforms, so it can stand next to Germany as an economically strong partner.


Prof. Ingrid Shikova is founder of the European Studies Department at Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski”. She has devoted her entire professional career to European integration. Prof. Shikova has been Director of the Centre for European Studies as well as Director of the Information Centre of the Delegation of the European Commission and adviser to the European Commission Representation. She is member of the Academic Council of the International Centre for European Training in Nice. Prof. Shikova was decorated for her contribution to the development of European studies in Bulgaria with the highest distinction of the University - honorary sign with a blue ribbon. At present she is Head of “Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence” at the European Studies Department of Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski”.



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