Tomi Huhtanen, Executive Director of Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies:
There will be no more 'cherry picking' for the UK
My opinion is that we should leave the door open as in Britain many people are hoping that the Brexit decision can be reversed
Maria Koleva, Brussels
13 April, 2017
Close-up: Tomi Huhtanen has been Director of the Brussels-based Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies (WMCES, previously Centre for European Studies) since 2007. The WMCES is a European political foundation and the official think-tank of the European People’s Party (EPP). Tomi Huhtanen is also Editor-in-Chief of “European View”, the academic journal of the WMCES. He was previously EPP Senior Adviser, focusing on Economic and Social Issues. Before that, he worked for the Finnish EPP Delegation to the European Parliament. Tomi Huhtanen studied International Politics and Economics at the University of Helsinki and spent a year in Spain at Universidad Autonoma de Madrid studying International Law and Political History. He also holds an MBA degree from the United Business Institute in Brussels. He speaks Finnish, Swedish, English, Spanish, French, Italian, Greek, and has basic knowledge of German.
- Mr Huhtanen, in your view, is the divorce between the EU and the UK going to be painful, given the serious indications for such an eventual scenario?
- There are four main points here before featuring how Brexit will look like. First of all, many things are now happening and it is very difficult for both sides to actually control how it will be played out. Secondly, as we in the Martens Centre warned from the very beginning, we should resist the kind of intuitive instincts to inflate the situation. Both parties should restrain a little bit and be quite careful what they are saying and how they are interpreting the situation. For example, the discussion on Gibraltar we are following these days gets very easily out of proportion and meaning, and unfortunately the media take this up. Both sides have to be very attentive to which kind of declarations they are making, as the public space in both the EU and the UK tends now to underline the differences and maybe not all, but certain press outlets use the opportunity to underline the conflict and additionally to escalate the tone of the debate. The populist elements both in the EU and in the UK side tend to do the same. A third point, is that now the EU and the UK sides are kicking off talks about formal procedure on how this negotiation will be conducted. We should give them time to set a basic framework. Today many of the items are as much as a speculation and actually, we don’t know yet what the most problematic points will be because the scale of these topics is rather large. The fourth point is that the institutional relations within the Union framework are not going to be there in two years’ time. So what we should do at different levels and platforms like at NATO or at the NGO level is to try to use this time to make a new kind of connections and dialogue between the EU and the UK.
- Are there any risks for the coordination between the law enforcement authorities of the two parties in the fight against terrorism and other big crimes to become weaker, if the Brexit talks prolong in time over the fixed two years?
- I think both sides hope this will not happen, but the risks are unfortunately there. Between the EU and the UK there is currently important cooperation on security and the fight against terrorism. In the long run it is in the interest of both to continue the cooperation and I am confident that we will find ways to productively cooperate because it is a big concern for the citizens. Maybe in the future it will be security cooperation that offers a platform for the new relations between the EU and the UK.
- Over the decades, the UK has enjoyed many preferences as member of the Union, so called ‘sweet deals’. Is Brussels ready to propose the next such deal to Great Britain and also is it possible the Brexit bill of €60bn be reduced?
- That was already said both by the governments of Germany and France, and by Mr Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator from the Commission side. I think their position was clear that there will be no more ‘cherry picking’. But what we actually need is some flexibility from both sides. At least, at this point of negotiations it doesn’t seem that there will be a lot of ‘sweetness’. About the amount of the bill, it is very difficult to say at this point in time. For both sides, €50-60bn sounds like a big amount of money but if you look what is on the table the sum is not actually the main thing. The problem is that money and concrete numbers are easily understandable for the media, for the public, so it becomes like an issue of principle. I think after the start it will be a discussion on what this €60bn really includes and the negotiations are not going to concentrate just on the number.
- Is a 'no deal' an option for Brexit?
- I don’t hope for it and nobody hopes for it, but it can happen. It depends on if the political conditions and political narratives overcome the rational facts and economic reality. But I think, that unfortunately this would be a possibility.
- Should the EU leave the door open if the UK changes its mind during the negotiations or is Brexit politically irreversible after triggering Article 50?
- My personal opinion is that we should leave the door open. What happens on both sides, and especially on the UK side, is that the majority of the political analysts and experts would say that reversing the decision is absolutely impossible. But also in the UK side we see very relevant people who actually are hoping that this decision could be reversed. This looks very unlikely now though, because there is a big political commitment.
- On the future of Europe of 27, do you think that the Rome Declaration outlines solutions on the main challenges that the EU is facing?
- As a kind of declaration that needs a broader consensus, it is quite general. But I think it also expresses the framework of the debate recognition that different levels can be in enhanced cooperation in certain thematic areas. The discussion on the future of Europe will follow and there will be extensive guidelines after this document.
- The new ideas of multi-speed Europe make the majority of people from central and eastern European countries feel abandoned and pushed out to the periphery. How can this for example make Europe more united?
- I know that it is a very controversial issue but I think that the political narrative and political discussion differs from the practical realities. It is a fact that in certain ways the EU is already multi-speed. We have Schengen or the Eurozone, where some countries are in and others are not. Then we have an enhanced cooperation within the Lisbon Treaty which actually makes it possible for countries to move on in different areas of cooperation. In fact, we have already tools for so called ‘differentiated integration’ and the institutional elements for the multi-speed EU are there, but somehow the countries have not moved further on it. With the different layers of cooperation in the Union, it becomes less clear for the European citizens what the EU is for. I don’t expect something radical to happen, and I don’t expect to have some division between North and South, or between the core and periphery. It will be more complex than that. If you look at the Commission document, it even doesn’t speak about ‘core Europe’. I think it is more like a political recognition of the actual reality. If this is the model we have to follow, it very easily can end up in a situation where for example Bulgaria in some aspects of cooperation will be much more integrated than some countries of the Western Europe.
- In your opinion, what should be the future of the cohesion fund as it is very important for the CEEC?
- In my view, the cohesion fund will remain because of its importance for the public and for the political establishment in the countries wherein the fund is being used. In fact, it is a political “red line”. I don’t believe the regional funds will be in danger but I assume there will be scrutiny in order to ensure the rules and transparency are followed - and funds used in a proper way.
- The scheme for relocation of migrants is obviously not working well. Should the EU change its approach and give the countries more flexibility to decide whether to host these people or to contribute in other way?
- We have to be realistic and pragmatic and we have to see that this current distribution mechanism is really not working. Also many people don’t want to stay where they are relocated. We need to revisit this idea and have to find functional solutions and a different kind of approach that work.
- Do you think the EU can overcome the big upswing of Euroscepticism across the continent?
- I think the populist parties’ rise, not only in Europe but in the US and other parts of the world, is due to the fact that the political system has not been able to deliver according to the expectations of people. In the bigger picture, we see that the economy and the social structure of the countries create a situation where people feel that reality doesn’t relate to their hopes. We are looking at economic growth that is slower than before. For the first time after 60-70 years, we have parents who cannot be sure anymore that their children’s future will be better, and this creates frustration. I think that the populists can be finally defeated only when we will have economic growth and the people will have sense of security and better perspectives for the future. In Europe, case after case the populist leaders. In the forthcoming elections in France, Le Pen most likely will not win. In Germany the populist wave, but will not define the election result. The real battle there is between the CDU and SPD, but for the stability of Europe, I hope that Angela Merkel will win.
- Looking into the future, can Europe’s plan to strengthen its military capacity somehow weaken the role of NATO?
- No, absolutely not. We have to make it very clear that even if there is a stronger military cooperation within the EU, it should be only as a pillar of NATO, and will not make NATO weaker, but will make it stronger. My own opinion is that the EU’s cooperation in security will complement NATO.