A bimonthly magazine on international affairs, edited in Germany's capital

“Why Are You Still Here?”


As they exit international bodies and agreements, the United States and United Kingdom are refusing to give up their seats at the tables they plan to leave. The question is whether their international partners will let them get away with it.

© REUTERS/John MacDougall/Pool

This week, the difficult negotiations over the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union began in earnest in Brussels. David Davis, the UK’s chief negotiator, squared off against Michel Barnier, his EU counterpart.

Davis called for both sides to “get down to business.” He then promptly went back to London, less than sixty minutes later. He gave no explanation for his own swift departure, which left the EU negotiators perplexed. Just days earlier, Barnier had warned the UK that it is running out of time to negotiate its exit, which must be completed by March 2019. “All I hear is a clock ticking,” he said sternly.

Meanwhile, across the street at the European Council, the daily business of negotiating EU legislation continued on this week as normal. And as representatives of the 28 member states craft new EU laws, the UK has shown no signs of taking a back seat – even on legislation that will not kick in until after they will, theoretically, leave the bloc.

Davis may be insisting that Brexit is happening, but down the hall his own civil servants are behaving as if it is not. It has raised more than a few eyebrows.

While the UK announced this month that it intends to leave Euratom, the European treaty dealing with nuclear energy, London has taken particular interest in a mammoth energy proposal put forward this year by the European Commission, which would reshape the bloc’s energy and climate rules after 2020.

Last month, during a meeting of national energy ministers discussing new energy efficiency rules – one part of the package – the UK pushed aggressively to water down the proposed energy savings goals for the 2020 to 2030 period. As reported by Politico this week, it left other energy ministers exasperated, because if Brexit goes ahead as planned, the UK will never be subject to these new rules.

“The UK civil servants are somehow behaving like nothing’s changed,” commented Jonathan Gaventa from the E3G think tank. The behavior has many convinced that these civil servants, and perhaps some ministers, don’t think the UK will leave the EU at all – or at least that it will still be beholden to EU rules.

They’ll Always Have Paris

Meanwhile, over in the former West German capital of Bonn, civil servants at the UN Framework Convention for Climate Change (UNFCCC) are feeling much the same as their counterparts in Brussels. But their frustration is with Washington rather than London.

The UNFCCC administers the international Paris accords on climate change, agreed in 2015, which US President Donald Trump announced last month he will remove the US from, joining Syria and Nicaragua as the only countries in the world which are not part of the framework.

And yet, US diplomats are still behaving as if Trump never made the announcement. According to EU sources, US officials are continuing to behave as signatories for the purposes of negotiating the rules of the accord, which still have to be worked out over the next several years. They intend to take a seat at the table when the signatories next meet, at a UN summit in Bonn in November.

Like the UK in the EU, for the moment the US still has every right to sit at that table. That’s because rather that choose one of the routes for leaving the Paris agreement which would have meant an immediate exit, Trump chose the more complicated route of a submitted notification of withdrawal. That requires a process of several years which, by coincidence, means the US cannot actually leave the accord until mid-November 2020 – one week after the next US presidential election.

This has led some to speculate that the US doesn’t intend to pull out of Paris at all. Because he promised a withdrawal during the election campaign, Trump had to announce an intention to leave. But by doing it in the most drawn-out way possible, it means the US swill still technically be in the framework over the next three years – a crucial period for shaping the rules of the accord.

There were two possible scenarios that could have unfolded after Trump’s announcement last month. If China had followed the US in pulling out of the agreement, following the pattern that killed the Kyoto Protocol in 2000, Paris would have been dead. But China doubled down on its commitment, and in Hamburg this month all of the G20 members except the US strongly affirmed the agreement and said it was non-negotiable.

Trump’s hope of killing or renegotiating Paris has failed, and that means the agreement will be the main framework for regulating global energy governance over the coming decades. That’s not a framework that the US can afford to be absent from.

The fear is that if the US were to be shut out from the negotiations shaping the Paris rules over the next few years, the rules could be written (at the urging of Beijing and others) in a way that disadvantages the US. This could be disastrous for Washington should the US end up re-entering Paris, or never leaving at all, under a future president. And so for the moment, the US is refusing to give up its seat at the table.

Not Taken Seriously Anymore

One can empathize with these Anglo-Saxon civil servants in Brussels and Bonn. They naturally want to exert as much influence as possible on international governance. But they are hindered by recent decisions by their electorates which necessitate leaving institutions that make the international rules.

Logically there are only two possible motivations for the British and American insistence on being part of crafting future rules they theoretically will not be a party to. The first is that these civil servants and ministers are hedging their bets. They know that Brexit and the US departure from the Paris agreement may not happen, and as long as they are still members they need to negotiate rules under the assumption that those rules will in fact apply to them in the future – a “just in case” strategy.

But there is a more nefarious explanation. If the UK really is leaving, then British civil servants would have a very reasonable motivation to sabotage EU rules and work to craft them in a way which benefits the UK as a future competitor. Likewise, the US now has every interest in making the Paris climate accords fail, particularly to make sure they do not become the world’s global energy regulatory framework.

The reality is that it’s probably a mixture of these two motivations that is keeping the Anglo-Saxons at the table. But the question is whether the rest of the world is going to let them get away with it.

An EU source told me last week that there is some disagreement about whether to allow the Americans to take an active role in Bonn in November. “They can make a lot of noise but we don’t have to take them seriously anymore,” he told me. But given that many battles in the UNFCCC are fought on developed versus developing lines (i.e. EU/US vs. China/India), some want to allow the US to keep having a sway, fearful of losing an important ally.

The same debates are being had in Brussels. There is increasing frustration that the UK should be allowed to influence EU laws that won’t kick in till after 2020, and increasing suspicion about their motivations. But on the other hand, more free market-oriented countries like Germany, Sweden, and the Netherlands still see the UK as an important ally in these EU Council votes. They are perhaps as hopeful as the British civil servants that Britain won’t actually leave the EU in the end.

But given that there are still 21 months to go before the UK leaves the EU, some sort of understanding will have to be reached about what the UK can and cannot influence. Otherwise, the anger being felt by continental Europeans is going to bubble over – much like it did in the days immediately after the Brexit referendum last year.

Speaking in the European Parliament days after the vote, EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker told MEPs that he would respect the outcome – which was greeted by a smattering of applause from UK Independence Party MEPs. “That’s the last time you are applauding here,” Juncker said to UKIP leader Nigel Farage. “And to some extent I’m really surprised that you are here. You were fighting for the exit, the British people voted in favor of the exit. Why are you still here?”

One year on, Farage is still there. So are the British civil servants and ministers in the European Council, voting on EU legislation. And there will also be US civil servants and ministers in Bonn in November. To both of them, Juncker’s question can reasonably be asked. Why are you still here?