After Brexit, Where To Now For Europe?

Hollande and Merkel together in Paris in March
Hollande and Merkel together in Paris in March
Benedikt Peters

BERLIN â€" When exactly should the British leave? How should the European Union react? Following the initial horror at the UK vote in favor of Brexit, the search is now on, from Brussels to Berlin and beyond, to find practical solutions to pick up the pieces and set Europe on a new path forward.

Here are some of the big, hard questions EU leaders must face:

When? Most European leaders say the UK's exit from the EU should happen as soon as possible. EU Commission President Jean-Claude Junker was asked when? "Immediately, now would be good." French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault and his German counterpart Frank-Walter Steinmeier both warned against Britain "lingering," urging a rapid start to negotiations for the terms of the exit.

European leaders fear, above all, that any period of uncertainty raises the risk that other countries might follow the UK's lead in leaving the EU. But it’s also in the interest of many nations to put uncertainties aside, as soon as possible, in order to limit the damage of the British decision. Stock markets across the world sank in the immediate aftermath. Meanwhile, France is preparing for the presidential election in 2017, and Germany for parliamentary elections; and Pro-EU parties in these and other countries will face many questions about the consequences of Brexit.

But there is another view, mostly clearly articulated by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, that rushing through negotiations would be a bad idea, that the parties need to "first calmly analyze the situation."

What new EU? There is one thing all seem to agree on: The European Union must change. But the "how" is the hard part. There are those who clearly request "more Europe," others are more cautious. European Parliament President Martin Schulz belongs to the first group. He recently published a 10-point agenda for deeper economic integration among European Union countries, which includes a common fight against the troubling high youth unemployment rate in Europe. European member of parliament from Germany Elmar Brok also asks for "more," notably on the terrain of military affairs.

The French and German foreign ministers have already laid out a common paper, invoking EU member states to focus on specific topics and tackle some of the big problems that must be addressed. Ayrault and Steinmeier are focusing specifically on counter-terrorism coordination, immigration and the economy, giving the option for member states to commit to certain criteria according to different calendars, bringing back the old idea of "two-speed Europe." European heads of state are balancing any desire for deeper integration with the realities of increasingly Eurosceptic forces inside their respective countries.

What new EU-UK relationship?

This may be the most important and uncertain question in the wake of the Brexit referendum. On the one hand, Britain represents an important political and business partner for many, including Germany, encouraging the maintenance of strong cooperative relationships in the future. That’s what Angela Merkel wants. But if the treatment of the British after their exit is too generous, it might lead to Brexit imitators. Among the scenarios for the future relationships with Britain being discussed right now: Should the UK be granted a similar status to Norway's, a member of the European economic space with unrestricted access to the European domestic market? Or should there be a close partnership based on a series of different contracts and agreements, similar to the EU's dealings with Switzerland? But German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble takes a very different approach, calling for a "privileged partnership," like the one discussed with Turkey. That would teach a hard lesson indeed, leaving the British Isles farther away from the European Union than Switzerland or Norway.

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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