1 Belgium offers olive branch on Brexit, calls for North Sea Union
24 Aug 2016 - The prime minister of Flanders has proposed a radical North Sea Union linking Britain to a cluster of regional states to cushion the Brexit shock, a sign that European leaders are starting to look for creative ways to heal the referendum rift.
Geert Bourgeois, leader of Belgium’s dominant region, said there is a growing consensus in EU capitals that it would be fatal mistake to try to “punish” Britain.
“More and more people now agree that there has to be a ‘soft Brexit,” he told the Daily Telegraph.
Mr Bourgeois said the vote to leave the EU was a sad moment but he insisted that it is possible to find a new modus vivendi on a friendly footing, to the benefit of all.
“I can’t imagine a situation where we have more barriers on trade in both directions. You are our fourth biggest export market. It is in our mutual interest to find a solution, and the majority of the EU now agrees that anything other than a soft Brexit would have a huge cost,” he said.
“We will be able to negotiate a trade agreement. It may be sui generis but it can be done,” he said.
Mr Bourgeois said the idea of North Sea Union was first proposed by the German ‘Land’ of Bremen six years ago but has suddenly become topical again with the Brexit vote. Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, France, Sweden, and Norway would be the obvious members.
The bloc would promote an integrated sphere for offshore energy and marine research, and as well as better grid network with interconnectors to drive down costs and boost back-up power. It would have a defence and security component.
“I am not proposing a new ‘EU’. My idea is a light structure on an intergovernmental basis, like the Mediterranean Union. There are so many areas in which we can work together on the enormous potential of ‘blue industry’ in the oceans, whether it is pharmaceutical sector, health, or food production,” he said.
The overture is a signal that EU politics is already moving beyond the ‘grief and anger’ stage of the Brexit upset, a recognition that it is possible to co-operate intimately with the UK outside the formal structures of the EU. The Belgians are masters of this kind of statecraft.
Flanders is the dominant bloc in Belgium’s complex devolved structure, a rich hi-tech region generating almost two thirds of the country’s GDP. It is led by the New Flemish Alliance (NVA), a conservative free-market party with a mild eurosceptic streak of its own.
The friendly tone of Mr Bourgeois is in sharp contrast to the hard-line rhetoric of Belgium’s national prime minister, Charles Michel, who lashed out at Britain after the Brexit vote, summoning all the forces of Apocalypse to punish the country for its sin. “It is the first time in my life that I’ve seen a democracy in a situation like this,” he said.
Mr Michel has reportedly calmed down, but his hands are tied in any case by the realities of Belgian politics in any case. “He is an arch-federalist and wants top take a tough line with Britain but the NVA is the biggest party in Belgium and it has a lot of influence,” said Raoul Ruparel from Open Europe.
“It just shows the huge array of opinion in Europe, and even within countries. That is why is it all so complex,” he said.
There is already a North Sea Commission made up of regions with a stake in the marine economy , currently under a Swedish president. This would be a logical building block for Mr Bourgeois’s new structure.
The Mediterranean Union has yet to come into to its own. It was originally an attempt by France to carve out a French-led zone of southern European states with distinct ties to North Africa, and was seen as a move to counter German dominance.
It has since gone through several iterations. The venture has largely stalled since Arab Spring succumbed to mayhem.