Theresa May, the British prime minister, has triggered Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. That means negotiations on the UK’s departure from the European Union can begin. But this is not just about what Britain wants – the Brexit deal depends significantly on what the EU is prepared to give.
The EU is a complex beast. It’s important to remember that there won’t be one unitary actor on its side of the negotiating table. Key to understanding the EU’s approach to Brexit is that it will not just negotiate with the UK, but also with and among itself. Each member state has its own pressures to face at home and its own priorities and red lines. These will colour the talks ahead.
Many have been surprised by how successfully the EU 27 have managed to maintain a united front so far – it was perhaps even surprising to them. It may be that they are holding it together because Brexit is the one issue around which the crisis-ridden union can truly rally. Maintaining the EU’s integrity and stability trumps all other priorities.
Angela Merkel, chancellor of Europe’s “reluctant hegemon”, stresses the need to stick together time and again. Even industry representatives likely to be hit by a hard Brexit have thus far toed this line. Britain must not be seen to get a deal that could be viewed as better than membership of the EU. If it is allowed to have its cake and eat it, other countries could be tempted too.
But, in reality, the member states are not a unified club. Divisions are likely to emerge, not least as Brexit threatens to affect their relative position within the EU. Poland’s recent run-in with its peers over the re-election of European Council president Donald Tusk showed, as if we needed reminding, that there is ample space for upsets.
Priorities and red lines
As decision-makers have confirmed in private discussions, Germany is particularly anxious to ensure a “level playing field of rules” post-Brexit. There should be no sectoral trade deals unless the UK agrees to recognise the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, which monitors the EU’s partnerships. There can be no retaliatory Singapore-on-Thames.
Central and Eastern states, particularly the Visegrád countries – the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and Hungary – may be more lenient. These are close allies who share the UK’s economically liberal vision and its disdain for Brussels. Cooperation with the UK in security and foreign policy is a priority for them. However, with one wary eye on Russia, they will not want the EU to fragment or weaken. And they are more likely to defend freedom of movement and the rights of their citizens, who after all account for nearly half of all EU citizens resident in Britain.
The Nordics and the Baltics will look particularly to foreign policy and security and defence cooperation. But the UK may find that given the ad-hoc nature of the latter, concessions here may not easily translate into long-term commitments in trade policy.
Spain, heavily reliant on trade with the UK, is not only home to the greatest number of British citizens in the EU, it also shares a land border with the UK – which could turn Gibraltar into a bargaining chip. The UK’s other land border – with Ireland – is an even greater pressure point. And France will play hardball no matter what – unless Marine Le Pen wins the upcoming presidential election, in which case all bets are off anyway.
In this scenario, the UK might find the idea of bilateral deals tempting. But it should be wary about seeking to divide and rule. Playing member states off against each other would not only cost precious goodwill, it could also cause negativity in one area of negotiation to spill over into another, creating a fatal spiral of disincentives. It would also almost certainly delay a final deal – never a good idea when the clock is ticking.
What’s more, the French and German elections are likely to stall talks. The new German government won’t be in place until the end of 2017. Until then, Brexit will only be one of several concerns on the German government’s mind.
The EU fighting for its future
Then there is the intricate institutional set up of the EU itself. National leaders will set down the guiding principles of the negotiation mandate, and make sure to exert very close control of the process at every stage. But the European Commmission will lead the talks on behalf of the member states. The European Parliament, while not in the room, gets a veto on the final deal. And the Court of Justice might just be asked to rule on whether a final deal conforms to EU law.
Institutions not only shape and constrain political behaviour, they also betray a “profound institutional conservatism”. Yet change is upon them: Brexit is also about the future of the European Union itself. In the midst of an ongoing crisis – with the very principles of future integration up for grabs – institutions will also have one eye on their own role in the union, and jostle for position.
While European national leaders will thus ultimately play the central role in the Brexit negotiations, they do so in an environment they may not fully control.
Mind the gap
Worryingly, there seems to be an ever-widening gulf between London and Brussels. Both sides tend to misread the position and intentions of the other; at times seemingly wilfully so. British politicians might think that flourishing a rhetorical sleight of hand is just playing to the gallery – it is in British politics. But politics works differently on the continent. Building compromise and coalitions are the name of the game. In turn, some Europeans still struggle to fully recognise the motives that led British voters to opt out of the EU. That lack of understanding incenses many in Britain.
Ideas, assumptions and language matter, in domestic as much as in international politics. How meaning is produced, how it is received, disputed, and reconstructed, is simply not peripheral to negotiations: it delimits what is possible right from the outset. And the two sides might just misunderstand each other at a fundamentally important moment.
Brexit negotiations will be fiendishly complex – and highly sensitive. That they are successful is crucial to the future of both sides. This will require minding, and bridging, a great many gaps.