How Brexit Tilts EU Political Alliances

January 29, 2020 Updated: January 29, 2020

BRUSSELS—The United Kingdom is leaving the European Union—cardboard boxes and Union Jack socks and all.

With the Brexit moment set for Jan. 31 at midnight Brussels time ( 6 p.m. EST) some UK legislators at the European Parliament in Brussels who have been fervent Brexit pushers are wasting no time getting ready to get out the door.

Lawmaker Nigel Farage’s office on Jan. 28 was a jumble of boxes and mementos ready to be packed and shipped.

For most of the Parliament’s legislators and many of the departing British lawmakers, the EU remains one of the greatest experiments in peace-building and democracy following the devastation across Europe from World War II.

Among the British backers of the EU are members of the Greens party, who lit lights outside the European Parliament against the darkening sky, a symbolic “We’ll leave a light on” action in case British lawmakers ever do return to Brussels.

EU Parliament chief David Sassoli will bid the UK legislators a formal farewell during the plenary on Jan. 30, where the Brexit vote will take place.

Even the UK’s representation offices will change their name and become the UK Mission to the European Union. For insiders, UKReps will become UKMis, and they will still be just as busy, as both Britain and the EU still need to figure their future relationship and trade deals.

Trade Talks

Britain’s exit from the EU is reshaping the balance of power in Europe, removing one of the bloc’s two big military powers and one of the top contributors to its budget. Britain has been an outspoken supporter of free trade, close ties with the United States, and a tough sanctions policy toward Russia.

Britain and France, the EU’s two nuclear-armed U.N. Security Council permanent members, have long been by far the bloc’s leading military powers. Britain was also the bloc’s only member of the “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing group, giving it privileged access to the output of U.S. spies. To contain the damage from Britain’s exit, the bloc is keen to keep London in a tight security and defense relationship in the future.

The departure of a traditional proponent of trans-Atlantic ties will leave more say to Paris, which has greater ambitions for the integration of European defense.

Britain has been a key backer of sanctions against Russia over Ukraine, with the most important economic sanctions now in place only until the end of July. Other Russia hawks, including Sweden, Poland, and the Baltic states, will see their hand weakened in discussions with peers such as Italy, Hungary, and Cyprus that are keen to resume business ties with Moscow.

Britain and the EU will find themselves in separate trade talks with the United States and China, which will change the negotiating leverage of the world’s most important trade relationships.

Within the EU, the free-traders’ lobby will be weakened, leaving the Netherlands at the helm of a group that also includes Ireland, Sweden, Denmark, and other smaller states.

With Germany seen leaning more toward a traditional French model of a strong state role, Britain will be an absence in discussions about industrial policy, vetting foreign investment, state aid to industry, and creating national champions.

Macron in the Driving Seat

Without Britain, the Franco-German “engine” of the union becomes more important. But as Angela Merkel nears the end of her long tenure as the German chancellor, French President Emmanuel Macron could get a bigger say in EU affairs.

Macron wants to reform the EU and deepen its integration, creating a rift with newer eastern EU members such as Poland, which had seen euro-skeptic Britain as an ally.

The eastern members want to compete within the EU through lower prices and reject French proposals to harmonize more rules. They support expanding the bloc into the Balkans, which Macron has resisted, and they strongly back NATO as a bulwark against Russia, while Macron called the alliance “brain dead.”

The EU is entering a period of horse-trading over its budget for 2021–27 and the departure of Britain leaves a gaping hole. Other net contributors don’t want to pay more, while recipients don’t want to give up aid.

Britain was by far the largest EU state outside the eurozone, meaning the other eight countries that have kept national currencies lose their most important ally when their interests diverge from those of states that use the euro.

“We’re passing the point of no return,” said Farage.
Reuters contributed to this report.