The European Union did not choose to separate from Great Britain. However, the withdrawal agreement makes a common future possible and leaves room for hope.
A bad decision cannot be negotiated into something good. That is why the Brexit deal that is on the table is probably the best of all bad outcomes that could be achieved in the negotiation process—for the EU as well as for the United Kingdom. It is a victory of common sense over chaos, and as such it deserves our full support.
Europeans did not choose to separate from Great Britain. On the contrary: we all still wish that Brexit would never happen. But as Europeans, we must live with the decision by the British, respect it, and together turn it into a close, friendly, workable relationship for the future.
Despite all the difficulties during the negotiation process, the withdrawal agreement between the EU and the UK makes such a common future possible—it therefore gives us reason to be happy and hopeful.
The British hesitantly joined the European Community as latecomers in 1973, only to hold a referendum on leaving the Community shortly thereafter, in 1975. But they did not leave. The referendum failed, and in the four decades that followed, Britain developed into a strong and reliable, though not always easy, EU member state. The future of Great Britain was in the EU.
Margaret Thatcher made this surprisingly clear in her famous Bruges speech in 1988. “Let me be quite clear”, the Iron Lady told the audience at the Collège d’Europe. “Britain does not dream of some cosy, isolated existence on the fringes of the European Community. Our destiny is in Europe, as part of the Community.”
The Brexit Deal Does Not Humiliate Either Side
This is history. Thirty years later, reality has changed. Regrettably, the UK’s separation from the EU is the reality we must work with. The withdrawal agreement, the so-called ‘Brexit deal’, constitutes an important step in this process. No one is humiliated by the agreement, no one forced to self-abandonment. It demands painful concessions from both sides , and it obligates the negotiating parties to work constructively on the future relationship. This agreement lays the foundation for a friendly separation. Although negotiations on the future terms of the relationship are still pending, the Brexit deal leaves all prospects open.
The Brexit referendum was a decision of the old against the young. Only a narrow majority of the voters in the United Kingdom voted “Leave”, and Brexit and the modalities of a withdrawal agreement continue to split voters and parties. It is up to us Europeans to give the young, pro-European British a chance to find a way back into the EU  in the indefinite future—if they so desire. It was clear from the outset that solving the Irish border problem would be like squaring a circle. With all its facets and sensitivities the agreement on the question of Ireland constitutes a key solution that enables a productive relationship in the future. The agreement was only reached because both sides were, in the end, prepared to make a number of concessions. So what is this all about?
The question of Northern Ireland is sensitive not least because the Good Friday Agreement is based on the free movement of goods between Ireland and Northern Ireland. The agreement ended a 30-year bloody civil war in Ireland and ushered in a fragile peace. It was foreseeable that the UK’s withdrawal from the EU would inevitably lead to the reintroduction of a border between Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, and the Republic of Ireland, which is a member of the EU.
However, a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland would be a critical setback for the peace process and could lead to new outbreaks of violence. Both sides want to prevent such a scenario. But not only did Britain insist that there should be no border on the Irish island, they also rejected border controls in the Irish Sea, which separates Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.
The Ireland-Northern Ireland Compromise
The withdrawal agreement provides the only feasible solution to this dilemma. It suggests that if no trade agreement has been concluded by the end of a transitional period in 2020, during which time the status quo will be maintained, the entire UK would remain in the EU customs union temporarily.
Importantly, Britain cannot unilaterally resolve the situation. Instead, an independent court of arbitration must authorise the UK to leave the customs union in favour of an alternative agreement. From the EU’s point of view, this implies a departure from the inseparability of the four freedoms: goods, persons, services, and capital that it had insisted on unrelentingly. In this sense, the agreement now on the table represents a viable compromise—and possibly the only one .
This compromise lays the necessary foundation for close and trusting future cooperation. Anything else, especially a hard Brexit, would be a disaster for the EU and the UK. This is true not only economically but also geopolitically, because the UK leaves the EU at a time when Europe needs to move closer together.
With Brexit, the EU bids farewell to one of the most important foreign policy players in the community. It is one of two European countries with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, and it has a first-class military and an excellent intelligence service.
The withdrawal agreement does not describe in detail how the future relationship between the UK and the EU will look, but the accompanying political declaration on the future relationship can be interpreted as a positive indication. Critical negotiations are still in progress.
I believe the core of future relations should be anchored, above all, in foreign and security policy, because even if Britain leaves the EU as a community, it remains geopolitically part of Europe. The country will also remain a close NATO partner. It is therefore in our mutual interest to seek close cooperation on foreign and security policy.
Indeed, the British, too, have a need for cooperation, not least because they have had their own painful experiences with the current American president. The British, too, need us Europeans to avoid becoming foreign and security policy lightweights. Brexit or no Brexit, in terms of foreign and security policy, we can only be strong together. Nothing will change that.
I therefore advocate for an avant-garde of European states to come together and begin cooperating much more closely on foreign and security policy. This group should include Germany, France, Poland, and, yes, Britain too. Of course, cooperation or accession would be open to all other EU member states.
One thing is clear: The ball is now in Britain’s court. Both sides have made their move. For the Europeans, chief negotiator Michel Barnier has described the deal as what it is: a pragmatic agreement which ensures that no red lines are crossed on either side. Britain guarantees that the rights of EU citizens residing in the country will not be curtailed after Brexit and that it will continue to pay its existing financial commitments; the EU, on the other hand, will ensure a solution that makes border controls between Ireland and Northern Ireland, as well as the Irish Sea, superfluous.
It is now up to the British to make a decision and to demonstrate that their political system is able to compromise. Take it or leave it! On the European side negotiations are over.
This post was first published in German in the Handelsblatt on 15 November 2018.
Norbert Röttgen is Member of the German Parliament, chairman of its Foreign Affairs Committee, and a Dahrendorf Forum Committee member.