Successful diplomatic treaties are often not so much about shaping the future as they are about surmounting the past.
The Peace of Westphalia, which in 1648 put an end to the European wars of religion, spelled out “that all that has pass’d on the one side, and the other, as well before as during the War, in Words, Writings, and Outrageous Actions… shall be entirely abolish’d in such a manner that all that might be demanded… on that behalf, shall be bury’d in eternal Oblivion.”
As three years of haggling over Brexit and the promise of many more to come show, UK-EU relations have not reached that point of blessed oblivion.
Instead, the spectre of another peace agreement looms: that of the doomed Versailles treaty, which, by sowing resentment and perpetuating misunderstanding of each other’s true ambitions and principles, created more tensions than it dissolved.
The question of how to steer the negotiations away from the acrimony built up over the years remains.
Trade negotiations are in and of themselves incapable of delivering this sense of catharsis. Global economics is about creating mutual gains through alignment, and since the starting point with Brexit is full integration, both sides stand to lose in terms of both economic opportunities and power.
Besides, Brexit was never really about economics and the potentials gains of trading away from Europe. What Britain – or rather: England – really wanted was something different, less tangible and more existential: a recognition that it was not just your average member of the brotherhood of nations, even less some joiner of a club which had Malta etcetera as equals.
What it really craved was affirmation that is was, and still is, special.
European Security Council?
The good news is: it is special – especially where future relations between the EU and the UK matter most: geopolitics.
Brexit is an act of economic self-harm, but that is as nothing compared to the diplomatic, mental and security consequences of divisions sown within the Western, liberal-democratic bloc.
While the UK cannot afford isolation, the European Union from its side would suffer gravely if it lost touch with a member of the UN Security Council, a nuclear power, and a country with the kind of defence and intelligence capability and global weight only two of its remaining members carry.
As EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen hinted recently in London, we need “new ways to co-ordinate responses to global threats”. That might – should, even – affect the EU institutions more fundamentally than most people in Brussels would be comfortable with.
The European Council is the place to start.
Britain could henceforth be invited as an associate member to all European summits. Joint meetings of heads of state and government would debate all issues touching Europe’s geopolitical role and stability – foreign affairs, defence, intelligence, migration – before the regular and official European Council draws the internal and legislative conclusions. Call it a European Security Council if you will.
This would be a strong sign of the UK’s special geopolitical role as well as a tangible indication that, regardless of Brexit, the European nations will not be divided internationally. The symbolism and the effectiveness are equally important.
It could even improve the EU’s internal workings: for years, the European Council has been a institution with plenty of bravura and potential legitimacy, but an underwhelming track record in actual fact.
Changing the focus to geopolitics and having the UK around the table as a partner on strategic issues could help reinforce its sense of responsibility.
Who knows, the UK might prove to be a more constructive influence to the European Union as a comfortable associate than it ever had as a miserable member.