As the World Economic Forum meets in Davos this week for the 50th time, Britain’s impending exit from the EU on 31 January is invariably reflected in statements and conversations between delegates as they look towards a new post-Brexit European dynamic.
The anniversary 50th Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) opened in the Swiss resort village of Davos on Tuesday, 21 January, bringing together an estimated 3,000 business leaders, heads of state and investors.
Beyond the global, regional and industry agendas set to be discussed under the theme ‘Stakeholders for a Cohesive and Sustainable World’, Britain’s imminent departure from the EU is bound to be a topic of conversation among WEF delegates.
Challenging EU Agenda
Slated for 31 January, the UK’s divorce from Brussels will mark the end of a protracted period of uncertainty that dominated the European bloc’s agenda.
The prospect of Britain’s departure from the bloc has already shifted the balance of power within the EU and unleashed new dynamics between its members, analysts cited by the Financial Times believe.
Exasperated with the procrastination of Brexit uncertainty, many EU officials expressed a degree of relief in connection with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s triumph in Britain’s general election in December.
German chancellor Angela Merkel, despite harbouring hopes of Britain reversing its decision to leave the EU, said at the time:
“Many are now happy to see a clear result. Boris must be recognised for having managed to convince lots of citizens. Chapeau.”
The remaining 27 members of the bloc are set to focus on other pressing priorities, with a new European Commission in place led by Germany’s Ursula von der Leyen. The EU faces contentious negotiations over a new seven-year budget, the European Green Deal strategy to reduce carbon emissions, and the possibility of a trade war initiated by US President Donald Trump.
Dominating the agenda for 2020 will be negotiating a future trade and security relationship with the UK, as Boris Johnson’s promise not to extend Britain’s transition period beyond the end of the year has set a challenging deadline to hammer out a trade deal.
EU officials have repeatedly voiced concerns to London that reaching such an agreement by the end of the year will be very difficult.
Looking ahead, France and Germany already see Britain, as a commercial rival, writes the outlet.
UK Chancellor Sajid Javid offered his vision for the UK’s future trading relationship with Brussels in an interview with the Financial Times on Saturday, 18 January.
Javid warned businesses that “there will be no alignment” with EU rules after Brexit, while holding off on saying precisely which sectors were expected to diverge.
“We will not be a ruletaker, we will not be in the single market and we will not be in the customs union – and we will do this by the end of the year,” said Javid.
Bearing in mind the size of the UK economy and its proximity to the EU single market, Brussels will seek to persuade Britain to agree to a “regulatory level playing field” in return for a supposedly bare-bones “zero-tariff, zero-quotas” deal for trade in goods, writes FT.
Speaking at the EU summit in December 2019 in the wake of the Conservative Party leader’s sweeping UK election victory, French President Emmanuel Macron had voiced hopes for a close future relationship with Britain.
“We do not want them to be an unfair competitor… My message to the UK is that the more loyal we are vis-à-vis each other, the closer relationship we can have,” said Macron.
As for the challenging timeline the bloc faces regarding negotiating a trade deal with Britain, it will serve to “focus minds on the continent and make it easier for the EU27 to maintain unity.
“The idea that they will crack in the later phase is overplayed,” Agata Gostynska-Jakubowska of the Centre for European Reform think-tank in Brussels is quoted as saying.
New Power Dynamics
Britain’s imminent formal exit from the EU has already set in motion profound changes in Europe, claims Henrik Enderlein, president of Berlin’s Hertie School, which specialises in international affairs.
The developments have put France and Germany “more squarely in the EU’s driving seat” and on a more equal footing than before, with the policy shifting in favour of deeper integration, the analyst is quoted as saying.
European analysts cite resurging French influence under President Emmanuel Macron, which could direct the EU in a more protectionist and anti-US direction.
The French president has been leading the push for a closer EU defence union since coming to power.
“We will not protect the Europeans unless we decide to have a true European army. We need a Europe which defends itself better alone, without just depending on the United States, in a more sovereign manner,” Macron had said in 2018.
“Power is shifting to France and Germany…But Germany is extremely weak, with domestic politics paralysing its leadership in the EU,” claims Agata Gostynska-Jakubowska.
Meanwhile, countries such as the Netherlands and Ireland have been prompted by Brexit to focus more on forging new links in an attempt to assert their voice in Europe more strongly.
Accordingly, the Dutch government has adopted a leading role in the new Hanseatic League of northern eurozone members. The New Hanseatic League developed from an informal cooperation among like-minded fiscally conservative northern European states. It was established in February 2018 by European Union finance ministers from Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands and Sweden.
Ireland, eager to safeguard its own interests against those of a post-Brexit UK, is also forging alliances with the Benelux countries – the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg, with other efforts proceeding via the Nordic-Baltic group.
Brussels has in many ways already moved into a post-Brexit mode, beyond the protracted period of uncertainty over the UK’s withdrawal that has dominated the European bloc’s agenda for so long.