Last week's headlines in the United Kingdom focused once again on the words of two men: the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier and Brexit secretary for the UK government, David Davies.
They have every interest in making the Brexit situation a deterrent for large eurosceptic movements in other European countries.
In the ongoing negotiation between Her Majesty's Government and the European Union, three main issues remain unresolved, notably the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, EU citizens’ rights who reside in the United Kingdom, and the infamous 'Brexit divorce bill'. The latter has caused considerable outrage in the British public, as the French negotiator demands a full £90 billion ($117 billion) in payments in order to pay for the expenses caused by the British exit.
The measure is so unpopular that even a majority of British people who voted to remain in the European Union now oppose it.
Make An Example of the UK
A week ago, the UK government refused to cover this large sum and has since issued thorough explanations why it holds that position. This apparently left EU leaders flabbergasted, whose clear intent is to make an example out of the United Kingdom. With Brexit being the first time an EU-member state has chosen to get out of the union, the team around Michel Barnier and EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker has every interest in making the Brexit situation a deterrent for large eurosceptic movements in other European countries. In fact, Barnier has been crystal clear on this. As the BBC reports:
Speaking at a conference in Italy on Saturday, Mr Barnier said he did not want to punish the UK for leaving but said: "I have a state of mind - not aggressive... but I'm not naïve."
"We intend to teach people… what leaving the single market means," he told the Ambrosetti forum.
Asked by the German newspaper Bild am Sonntag if other member states would follow Britain's example of quitting the union, Commission chief Juncker said: "No. Britain's example will make everyone realize that it's not worth leaving."
How exactly is the EU expecting to bring other members off their eurosceptic tendencies remains unclear. With a considerable trade imbalance in favor of the Brits, which are still one of the most important economic players on the globe, it is hard to imagine that Angela Merkel will want angry Volkswagen producers before her decisive parliamentary elections and that Emmanuel Macron will want to deal with enraged Bordeaux wineries before the upcoming senate elections.
Ineffective, High-Horse Tactics
The calm and pragmatic Brits are virtually unimpressed by the EU's tough talk, and so is the electorate in the rest of Europe. According to a recent TNS Infratest Politikforschung poll, 42 percent of Germans favor a referendum on Germany's membership in the EU, and 62 percent agreed with the statement that the union "is not moving in the right direction".
How long European citizens will continue to support a political structure which is over-regulating the economy and people's personal habits is what should really concern EU-leaders. After Brexit, it is likely that more and more countries will no longer be willing to stay a member, starting with those in Central and Eastern Europe. Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary already have strong eurosceptic movements.
Ever since the 2004 enlargement of the European Union to include several former Eastern Bloc countries, European technocrats have believed that financing Central and Eastern European infrastructure and agriculture will make them nod along with the policies of the Brussels machine.
This political strategy is doomed to fail. There are emerging markets in the world, yet Europe is not one of them. For the continent to stay competitive, it needs to rid itself of the protectionist trade policy of the EU, and, even more importantly, of its massive regulation on businesses. The only reason why no countries have left the EU is because the member states do not let the people vote on its membership. Since the U.K.'s referendum in June 2016, they know that such a vote can produce "undesired" results.
The EU is manifestly unprepared for the Brexit negotiations and is merely letting off steam. What EU leaders need to do is to calmly overcome their ego and work in the interest of European citizens and consumers.