This week, a list of the top 50 influencers on Brexit was published by EurActiv. The list was an extensive piece of research, put together in a methodical way, by a well assembled panel, brought together by EurActiv. The launching of the list, an event sponsored by Interel, included an insightful panel discussion, where a number of fascinating dynamics at play in the process were talked about.
The list of 50 influencers can be viewed here.
With negotiations between the UK, and the EU on the cusp of proceeding, the main talking points from the event are highlighted:
The Balance of Power is in Europe’s hands
Of the 50, 28 are non-UK persons. The view from the panel though was that even this was too low. These negotiations will likely be asymmetrical, with the UK very much going cap in hand to the EU, who hold the majority of the cards.
The staple European political institutions, the Council, Commission and Parliament, also all feature heavily in proceedings. It is of course inevitable that they will have a role to play in Brexit, but which will have the most power in these negotiations is a less obvious question.
Unity over Prosperity
The view from Brussels has been pretty clear so far. The EU’s main objective from these negotiations is to preserve the unity of the 27 remaining member states. The Council is willing to take (what it believes will be a small) economic sacrifice to achieve this.
Euroscepticism is viewed as a virus in Europe. Failure to stop it, and the patient will die. It therefore seems to be a central aim, that Britain must suffer the price for leaving the EU. If Britain can portray Brexit as a victory, others may follow suit.
This should be a grave concern for the UK Government, who hoped that rational economic sense would triumph over ideological dogmatism invested in the European project. The fact that the people on the list are predominantly political figures, rather than economic ones is telling.
Businesses, who are already distraught about Brexit may also be concerned about the vast number of political figures on the list, with just one solitary business man in 50th place.
Whether unity will remain the EU’s leading principle in these negotiations, especially if a small economic pinch transmogrifies into financial slap, remains to be seen.
East vs West
Rather surprisingly, there is not a single Eastern European in any position on the list. This is perhaps an oversight. David Cameron assumed that if he could get Germany on board with his EU reforms, the rest of Europe would fall in line. The process was made much trickier by difficult Heads of State, who didn’t not share Merkel’s mindset. As Wallonia’s objection to the EU/Canadian trade deal showed, smaller states and regions still have significant power to be “difficult” in major negotiations.
Sturgeon flying high
Something of a raised eye brow moment, met with “oohs” around the room was Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon getting third spot. The numbers for a second Independence Referendum don’t appear to be adding up, tilting political leverage away from her.
Anti-establishment figures Marine Le Pen, Nigel Farage and Donald Trump all feature on the list. They may not hold much sway over the negotiations directly, but their ability to mobilise mass opinion means indirectly they rightly feature on the list.
If viewed on the list as anti-stabilising figures though, one must ask why Vladamir Putin is not included. Without even stepping foot on US soil, he was an ever-present, almost cataclysmic part of their elections. There is no reason why he couldn’t play a similar role with Brexit, destabilising global geo-politics from shadows in the Kremlin.
Labouring the point
There is only one member of the Labour Shadow Cabinet on the list, Brexit Minister Keir Starmer. The only other Labour MP is Hillary Benn, Chair of the Committee for Exiting the EU; now an outsider in the current Labour administration. This illustrates that Labour are in danger of becoming an irrelevance in this process.
They have made some small progress since Starmer’s appointment but if they want to make a real dent in preventing the Tory vision for Brexit, it is essential that they start forming effective coalitions with their European allies. Doing so would also empower TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady, who sits in 41st position.
“What about Boris?!”
As one of the panel was commenting on the limited role British politicians will have on this process, a heckler from the crowd yelled “What about Boris!?”…No, it wasn’t Michael Gove, but it was, of all people, Mr Johnson senior, keen to ensure his son was not being overlooked. It was a comment echoed by many in the UK and Europe right now…indeed, what about Boris?
“Events dear Boy, events!”
One of the most perceptive comments came from a member of the audience, who made the important point that the process will inevitably be driven by events happening outside of the process. If 2017 is anything like 2016, then there is no telling how momentous moments might drive proceedings. The Italian Constitutional Referendum, and then elections in the Netherlands, Austria, Germany and France could all radically reshape the landscape of Europe. That is before we even consider the possibility of another European crisis, similar to the Greek debt or refugee crisis.
Lots more questions, fewer answers
People come to these sort of events wanting to learn more about the state of things. What this event highlighted however is that there are far more questions than answers in the Brexit discussion, and these are only multiplying. This is blood boilingly frustrating for analysts and consultants, and even more so for businesses. EurActiv has done an excellent job in stimulating conversation with this list, but it certainly has not provided anymore clarity on proceedings.