Europe’s week: Brexit is back, free lunches and transatlantic troubles

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Brexit came back this week after COVID-19 dumped it on the sidelines.

While the UK has already left the EU, the future relationship between London and Brussels has yet to be hammered out.

But there is little progress being made and both sides are accusing each other of deliberately stalling the talks and living in a dream world.

This week, the EU reminded London that in a divorce, when you move out, there is only so much furniture you can keep.

“We cannot allow and we will not allow this cherry-picking,” said Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator. “For one, the United Kingdom chose to become a third country. It cannot have the best of both worlds. For another, this is simply not in the overall long term political and economic interest of the European Union.”

Right now we’re in a transition period that ends in December. It could be extended, but any prolongation must be agreed by the end of this month.

Brussels has signalled it is open to an extension, but the British government is staunchly against it.

What we learn from this is that, in politics, there is no free lunch.

That happens to be the word the EU’s budget commissioner Johannes Hahn used this week when he commented on the talks within the EU to cobble together a coronavirus rescue package.

“The way how the money should be distributed, should be provided, by the way, (is) not as a free lunch, but linked to certain reform measures,” explained Johannes Hahn.

In other words: no reforms, no money.

EU-US relations have become more and more strained since President Donald Trump took office. In the latest move, the US is reportedly planning on pulling troops from Germany. What could be the strategic rationale behind that?

“People are focusing on the fact that the US troop presence in Europe has long been the core of NATO’s deterrent posture with regard to Russia. And if the US makes a unilateral decision to reduce those troops, many are saying it is a gift to Russia,” explains Karen Donfried, the president of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

“And it’s particularly striking because what we have seen since Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, a sovereign part of Ukraine’s territory, was NATO allies stepping up and increasing their troop presence along NATO’s eastern flank. So there is a lot of concern about the message it sends to Russia and what it means for NATO’s deterrence.”

Trump has been widely criticised in Europe for announcing he would pull the US out of the World Health Organization. Why is there no sense in Washington, not even in a global pandemic that global cooperation could be helpful?

“I don’t think it’s surprising that President Trump would have such a negative view of the World Health Organization and, in fact, would decide to pull out, because it’s very much in keeping with his view of multilateralism. So to the extent that he is cooperating internationally, he is doing it bilaterally,” says Donfried.

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