UK Brexit debate still missing the point

Negotiations seldom go well if you do not understand where the other side is coming from.

What a bizarre six months it has been since Britain’s vote to leave the European Union. Immediately, the pound fell – and then, nothing at all. It feels like a sort of freeze-frame Wile E Coyote moment: we have run off a cliff, but remain suspended in mid-air whilst the laws of gravity seem in no hurry to assert themselves.

In the absence of real-world consequences, and with the British government reluctant to indicate its policy whilst it struggles to work out what on earth that should be, speculation has filled the void. How best can we ‘take back control’ without crashing the economy? Was it a ‘hard’ or a ‘soft’ Brexit we voted for? Unsurprisingly, this national conversation has been largely inward-facing, concerned above all to puzzle out what sort of future relationship with the EU a bitterly divided country might settle for.

What the continentals might settle for has been less discussed, and usually brushed off with cheery references to the interests of German car makers and Italian wine growers. This is a pity, since negotiations seldom go well if you do not understand where the other side is coming from.

Europeans have not said much, pointing out that it is for the Brits to make the first move. But what they have said, whether in Brussels or in national capitals, has been strikingly uniform. Consistent themes have included no negotiation before Britain’s Article 50 notification; negotiation of the divorce to precede definition of the future relationship; the inseparability of the single market from the ‘four freedoms’, notably freedom of movement; the unrealism of rejecting the responsibilities of EU membership but expecting to continue to enjoy its privileges.

That the French should insist on “no special favours” is no surprise. But even those identified as Britain’s potential allies have not sounded obliging. Chancellor Merkel’s routine comment is “no cherry-picking”; the Dutch finance minister has called Foreign Secretary Johnson’s cheery predictions “intellectually impossible and politically unavailable”; and European Council President Donald Tusk has dismissed “magic spells”. Like Michel Barnier, the EU’s lead negotiator, Tusk insists that either you are in or you are out – which makes talk of ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ Brexit beside the point.

When German automotive bosses say their Chancellor has bigger responsibilities than car sales, they mean it


British ministers have tended to dismiss all this as so much positioning for the negotiations ahead. Philip Hammond has even remarked on how ‘disciplined’ the Europeans have been in their utterances. But ‘discipline’ and the many different actors that constitute the EU are strangers: if the Europeans are all saying much the same it is only because they all think and feel much the same. They may be induced to change their minds; they may be ousted by populists in the months ahead, in which case all bets will be off. But at least we should recognise where they are now. Here are some of the key points.

By and large, the political class in Europe actually believes in the EU

London is not the only national capital ready to blame failed crops or barren cows on ‘Brussels’ when it suits. But, by and large, European politicians, especially in the older member states, actually believe in the Union, think it is a valuable project worth fighting for, and are deeply invested in it. It is hard for the British, whose attitude towards EU membership has been strictly utilitarian, and who have been conditioned by much of their press over four decades to view Brussels with a mixture of fear and contempt, to credit this. But when German automotive bosses say that of course they would regret lost sales to the UK but that their Chancellor has bigger responsibilities to think about, they mean it.

The EU is above all a community of law 

The point of the EU has been not to abolish competition between European states, but to take it off the battlefield into the conference room. Respect for legality, process and precedent are deeply ingrained. So when Britain says it wants a close post-Brexit relationship with the EU, Europeans look to pre-existent models, specifically the European Economic Area (the ‘Norwegian model’) or the EU/Turkey customs union. The British have already made plain they want something better (and no wonder – as the recent House of Lords report on future trade with the EU makes clear, both models offer only partial market access, but involve a real, painful surrender of sovereignty). But the idea of a ‘special deal’ for the Brits would not come naturally to Europeans, even if they were in indulgent mood.

Europeans are not in indulgent mood

According to the British Foreign Secretary, there is a “massive underlying fondness for the UK in Europe”. Such a substratum may once have existed; but it is now very thoroughly suppressed. Forty years of demands for special treatment will have that effect – the more so when, not content with the string of concessions made (budget rebate; opt-outs from euro and Schengen; free choice of security and police cooperation) the Brits demand a ‘renegotiation’ to secure an even more privileged position. Many Europeans were deeply angered when, at the height of a migration crisis we refused to help with, David Cameron held, as they saw it, a referendum gun to their heads and forced some rather trivial British preoccupations onto an already almost unmanageable agenda.

In such circumstances, the tenor of Britain’s current Leaver-dominated debate does not help. Nor do such episodes as Defence Secretary Fallon’s pledge to carry on vetoing a couple of smallish moves towards closer defence cooperation which every other member state wanted to make, for as long as Britain remains in the EU. The German defence minister in particular did not hide her exasperation. Fallon has since been called off, and Boris Johnson foreswore such “dog-in-the-mangerish” behaviour – only to follow up with his assurance to the Czechs that European attachment to freedom of movement was ‘bollocks’.

With Britain having just taken a huge national decision for largely emotional reasons, it seems perverse to assume that Europeans will shrug off such provocations and consider only their economic interests, as they approach the Brexit negotiating table.

The Europeans have the negotiating whip hand

If Brexit is not to turn into a national humiliation or an economic disaster, we will need a great deal of help from our negotiating partners – and we have given them no reason to offer any


The more so when we are so clearly the demandeur, and the negotiating process, especially the time constraints, so clearly favours the EU. Of course, we have some assets to deploy – our ‘security surplus’ most obviously. Leavers also point to our trade deficit with the EU. But the reality of the British position is perhaps best conveyed by a thought experiment – just imagine what 1 April 2019 would look like if no deal were done, and no time extension agreed. All traffic would cease: no aircraft would take off, no ferries would sail, trucks would back up on the Tunnel approaches. Who would then be ‘cut off’, Britain or the Continent? Of course, this will not happen. But the time pressures are such that already the need for a transitional arrangement is becoming understood on both sides, and the same time pressures will not enhance our chances of achieving any improvement on the Norway or Turkey models for such a transition. If Brexit is not to turn into a choice between a national humiliation and a national economic disaster, we shall need a great deal of help and cooperation from our negotiating partners – and we should understand that we have yet to give them a reason to offer any.

David Cameron will be remembered as the Prime Minister who put party above country. Perhaps his successor has the same priorities. But if Theresa May and her key ministers genuinely wish to secure ‘the best possible deal for Britain’ they will need to put themselves in European shoes, and frame their approach accordingly. Breezy bluster may play well at home, but is not the way to encourage the other side to see the British as valuable post-Brexit partners rather than people they are glad to see the back of. Or, indeed, rather thought had left already: as Politico’s chief Europe correspondent points out, most Europeans have moved on.

Once the best possible deal is done, and Brexit’s implications for the nation’s future can for the first time be properly assessed, the Government will have a duty to ensure that the British Parliament and people have a final chance to consider whether that future is really what they want. Because magical thinking will be no help at all when gravity finally kicks in. 

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

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