In times of uncertainty, history can provide comfort, for it simply moves on. UK alarmists who refer to the Brexit negotiations as the “darkest hour” or say “Britain stands alone” are using the wrong analogy. There have been more difficult chapters in our common history.
Let me start simply: there is no need to panic, on either side of the Channel. The timetable for negotiations between UK prime minister Theresa May and Michel Barnier, who represents the other 27 EU nations, is tight. But there is agreement on 80 per cent of the document. Taking a pragmatic approach will make it easier to strike a balance between benefits and obligations.
When I talk to British government colleagues, I point out one simple element: the agreement has to work. And it can. A clear-cut deal will provide both governments and peoples, notably the business community, with what is most needed: an end to uncertainty.
Two summers ago, emotions were running high after Britain unexpectedly voted to leave the EU. Most people in Brussels and the EU capitals failed to heed the wise advice of the 19th-century French diplomat Talleyrand, namely a “diplomat never gets upset, he takes notes”. But now we have moved on to technical details such as customs controls. The UK will inevitably leave the common market, so we must find appropriate mechanisms to reflect this.
Although the actual negotiations are being exclusively handled by Mr Barnier, under guidelines issued by the bloc in March 2017, Austria currently holds the presidency of the EU and will chair decisive Brexit councils.
Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has hosted Mrs May and I have met with UK foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt to discuss various aspects of the Brexit agreement. We believe a no-deal scenario should be ruled out; it would cause severe damage to our citizens and companies. Future relations have to be defined once the withdrawal has been completed.
The EU is certainly split on many topics, with migration being number one. But, interestingly, cohesion among the EU27 prevails when it comes to the Brexit dossier. Bilateral meetings with the UK are useful to better understand each other, but formal negotiations remain within Mr Barnier’s mandate.
When I am asked by the British media whether Austria will “help” the UK, my answer is: “To help is not a diplomatic category, it is all about the convergence of interests.” The UK should remember that pragmatism has long been a virtue of British diplomacy. I have learnt a lot from the writings of Harold Nicolson, who described lawyers and missionaries as the worst diplomats and insisted on the primacy of common sense.
So here we are on a tightrope walk between regulations and practical politics. What the EU27 fears is a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. To avoid that, and to preserve the Good Friday peace agreement, the EU has proposed that Northern Ireland remain in a common regulatory space with the rest of the EU for trade in goods. But Mr Barnier has said the detailed text of this proposal still needs to be improved.
On the British side, Mrs May’s speech in September 2016 made clear that she wants the country to be “global Britain”. This is not new. The UK has historically oscillated between the European continent and her overseas interests, shying away from permanent alliances. Certain features of Brexit remind observers of the English Reformation of the 16th century, when Henry VIII rejected papal authority. His move created one of the first incarnations of a global Britain. While continental powers were fighting each other for European supremacy, Britain built an overseas empire.
Two world wars forced Britain to become a truly European actor. But even Winston Churchill, who understood the need for the UK to become involved on the continent in the 1930s and 1940s, believed in limits. His 1946 speech calling for a “United States of Europe”, described Britain as a friend rather than part of that project.
The UK’s path to joining the European Community, and later the EU, was full of stumbling blocks. This process occurred during decolonisation, when Britain surrendered control of the Indian subcontinent and its African colonies. Many of the people who supported the UK joining the European project in 1973 were trying to find a new British identity after that turmoil. But some sceptics, including French leader Charles de Gaulle, believed the UK would always be more inclined towards the rest of the world than to the continent.
Now we are closing another chapter in the relationship between Europe and the UK. Achieving this will require both common sense and sobriety. Personally, I trust all involved actors to possess these qualities.
The writer is foreign minister of Austria