German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble has been talking tough on Brexit, attempting to create the impression that the apparently hardline view on negotiations adopted by Germany and the European Commission is unanimous.
“There is no free lunch. Britons must know that,” said Schäuble.
“We don’t want to weaken Britain, but we also don’t want that the rest of Europe is weakened,” he added, according to Sky News.
“Britain should not have advantages after the exit, that other countries don’t have.”
Whilst the finance minister’s rhetoric is harsh, it does, in fact, suggest that a fairly ambitious trade agreement could be achieved.
Mexico provides an example of a country where trade in manufactured goods and even services has been liberalised extensively, whilst countries such as Israel have been able to participate in EU-led initiatives such as the European Research Area – but neither have had to join the Single Market or submit to its Free Movement immigration regime.
European Council President Donald Tusk hinted at this in his own statement, saying: “We all want a close and strong future relationship with the UK. There is absolutely no question about it.”
Tusk was clear that “before discussing the future, we have to sort out our past” – referring to the various arguments around payments currently being leaked to the European media. Tusk did, however, indicate that it was important to “handle [these issues] with genuine care, [and] fairly”.
Tusk’s less combative tone hints at the divided opinion amongst EU member states with regard to how the Brexit negotiations should be handled.
Whilst much of the formerly Remain-leaning media has indicated the stance of Germany and the Juncker Commission reflects prevailing opinion, there is strong evidence that many European governments would prefer a more conciliatory approach.
“Some people really want to make it as tough as possible for the United Kingdom,” noted Jarosław Kaczyński, chairman of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS), in February 2017.
“Meanwhile some of us would like to sustain a kind of partnership with the United Kingdom. Not within Europe – since you do not wish to remain inside – but very close and friendly relations from outside the European Union. Poland belongs to the second category of voices.”
The Minister-President of Flanders, Geert Bourgeois, has also complained that “a couple of countries [in the EU] are in a punishment project”, and believes that their “lose-lose” approach to the negotiations must not prevail.
The Hungarian foreign minister, Péter Szijjártó, too, has indicated that his government will push for a comprehensive free trade agreement, “to avoid a situation whereby the EU goes to the back of the line for Britain”.
Szijjártó believes that “a situation where Britain is better off trading with the Americans, Turks, Indians, Australians or Japanese” would be extremely detrimental to the EU.
“Losing such a partner and giving it away to others would be a suicidal strategy,” Szijjártó emphasised in March 2017.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has himself questioned whether the EU can maintain a united front during the negotiations.
“Do the Poles and the Hungarians want exactly the same thing as the Germans and the French?” he asked, whilst announcing that he would not be seeking a second term at the helm. “I have serious doubts.”