The most immediate problem is bandwidth, particularly in London but also in EU-27 capitals, as endless Brexit debates distract attention from other challenges. For example, leaders scrapped a discussion on China at the March European Council to discuss Brexit deadlines. Even if a divorce is agreed, negotiations on the future relationship could take years.
Despite historic British resistance to deeper integration, the U.K. is a global player whose participation has benefitted EU policymaking. Although protracted Brexit arguments have strained relations, European diplomats lament the impending loss of regular contact with their British counterparts on a myriad of issues.
In economic terms, Brexit will affect the U.K. more than the EU. Yet the nature and extent of Brexit’s impact on all member states will depend on how Britain leaves the EU and the future degree of regulatory alignment. A no-deal departure would hinder continental supply chains and markets, whereas continued British participation in the Customs Union and/or Single Market would minimize disruption. Beyond quarrels about the backstop, Brexit has destabilized politics in Northern Ireland by resurfacing contentious identity and constitutional questions.
[U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May has] very clearly been putting the interest of party unity first [but has failed to win over her pro-Brexit MPs who demand the EU make more concessions. Now] the only alternative is to pivot in the other direction and try to get some support from Labour MPs.
I question whether the U.K. and EU will become political and economic rivals, as geography, history, financial interests, security concerns, and shared values will necessitate continued close cooperation in some form for the foreseeable future. My bigger concern is the all-consuming nature of Brexit, which could prevent the U.K. especially and the EU from engaging effectively against international rivals. Brexit already dominates debates in London, with a divided Cabinet and parliament having limited bandwidth to engage on global challenges. Even if the U.K. parliament ratifies a Brexit deal, the two sides must then embark on equally complicated and domestically contentious negotiations about their future relationship. In some form, Brexit will afflict Europe for years and risks detracting attention from emerging threats.