The EU’s Ides of March? Article 50 timing could spell disaster for European unity

Patricia Hogwood

That sinking feeling. EPA/Armin Weigel

Theresa May’s announcement that the UK government will formally launch the Brexit process by the end of March 2017 deals a body blow to European leaders struggling to maintain the integrity of project EU. On top of the rhetoric of a “hard Brexit”, the timing seems designed to catch the EU’s champions at their most vulnerable.

A new president for France

The beleaguered French president François Hollande is yet to decide whether he will defend his post in the elections beginning in April 2017. Whether or not he chooses to stand, France is certain to be preoccupied with an unusually open presidential election.

Current polls indicate that if Hollande did stand, he would not survive the first round of voting. The runoff would most likely be a contest between the conservative Republican Party – probably fronted either by former prime minister, Alain Juppé, or former president, Nicolas Sarkozy – and Marine Le Pen of the populist right Front National.

A swing to the right seems on the cards, then, for France. But Juppé might be hard pressed in the face of UK Tory government antagonism to maintain his line that Britain should not be “punished” over Brexit. Sarkozy’s plans to reverse Brexit by renegotiating the EU treaties also sound increasingly implausible.

A game-changing vote in Germany

Germany’s leaders had made it clear that they wanted the UK to be ready to start Brexit negotiations at the start of 2017. By March 2017, the country will be in the throes of a federal election campaign.

The last election was a quiet affair. Angela Merkel coasted to victory by dint of her reputation as a safe pair of hands. By contrast, the September 2017 election promises to be a potential game changer.

The rapid rise of the populist right Alternative for Germany (AfD) has contributed to an unusually unpredictable party coalition landscape. Informally, the long campaign has already begun, with widespread speculation as to whether or not Merkel will stage a new bid for the chancellor post. If she stands, “Mutti” (Mummy) will face her toughest campaign yet as she fights to integrate an unusually polarised party and to please a voting base split over her humanitarian refugee policy.

Gladiators, ready? EPA/Michael Kappeler

If she stands down as chancellor, her Christian Democratic Party (CDU) will struggle to find a convincing alternative. Finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, or Horst Seehofer, leader of the CDU’s sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU), would help to win back right-leaning voters from the AfD, but would probably alienate a greater number of moderate Merkel supporters.

Merkel has said she will declare her intentions by the new year. By March, then, Germany’s leadership, focused on domestic political survival, would certainly rather not be dealing with a bullish UK ready to open Brexit negotiations.

Italy on the brink

Italy will be in no position to step into the breach. The controversial constitutional referendum to be held on December 4 2016 is already viewed as an opportunity for a vote of confidence on Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s government.

Either a “yes” or a “no” vote will bring about institutional and political change; either will spark a strong reaction from the losing side and is likely generate a period of instability. Supporters of the proposed reforms see them as a chance to break the institutional deadlock that plagues Italian politics, detractors highlight a potential for authoritarianism in enhanced government powers and a de facto “presidentialisation” of the system.

Combined with mounting concerns over a fragile banking sector, Italy’s referendum for progress is looking increasingly like a debacle for Renzi.

With the current leaders of three key member states likely to be compromised, distracted or possibly even otherwise engaged by March 2017, the launch of hard Brexit negotiations may prove more than just an irritant for those in the EU hoping for constructive and cooperative talks.

Brexit and the EU’s schedule

If Article 50 is triggered in March, it will also mean that Malta will be holding the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU at the time of the Brexit launch. However, Britain’s longstanding connections with Malta are unlikely to favour the UK’s cause. Given the exceptional significance of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, the European Commission will play the leading role in negotiations.

The Maltese parliamentary secretary, Ian Borg, has acknowledged this, noting that Malta would not be directly involved in the negotiations over Brexit because that would be handled by the EU’s “technical heavy machinery”. Prime Minister Joseph Muscat has reiterated the common EU line that any Brexit deal, while fair, must offer rewards inferior to full membership.

The timing of the triggering of Article 50 may reignite the Brexit contagion first inspired by the UK’s referendum campaign in member states including France, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and Italy.

In these countries and others, a high-profile hard Brexit stance from the UK government may offer momentum to eurosceptic, populist forces seeking a better deal for their own member states. They may even call for their own exit strategy. The question of whether Brexit will ultimately serve to unite or fragment the European Union remains open, but May’s timing strikes a blow for fragmentation.

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Patricia Hogwood does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

University of Westminster provides funding as a member of The Conversation UK.