The UK-EU relationship: the political consequences of mutual misunderstanding

There has been no shortage of misunderstandings since the Brexit negotiations began. In the discussions on the Withdrawal Agreement (WA), UK politicians have been accused of not understanding the customs union and single market, while trying to negotiate favourable future access.

On the other side, EU negotiators have been accused of not grasping the UK-wide political significance of the Northern Ireland backstop as currently phrased. This has led to tensions that have made the negotiations more difficult. But how did these misunderstandings arise and can they be resolved?

Fog in the Channel, Europe cut off

British citizens’ mistrust of all political bodies, but especially EU institutions, has defined their interaction with the bloc. In part, this follows a British aversion to fully engage in EU integration from its formative years, never creating a sense of ownership among the population.

This scepticism was fed by political apathy. For the past 40 years, no sitting prime minister has consistently articulated a positive vision of Britain as a leading player in EU integration.

Only when the European project became irresistible did domestic politics allow UK participation in the first place. If not always Euroscepticism, Euro-ambivalence has characterised the UK approach.

Following this tradition, in the referendum David Cameron found himself advocating membership of a bloc he had consistently criticised. As early as 2005, he referred to “a European Union that nobody trusts.” Unsurprisingly, the public found him an unconvincing cheerleader for membership.

Theresa May is equally trapped in this—particularly Conservative—contradiction, conceding to Euroscepticism internally while outwardly arguing for a “deep and special” relationship.

Given the lesson from Brexit—that the internal Eurosceptic pull will almost always be stronger—understandably, this appears to the EU27 as insincere. But it is the approach most likely to be rewarded by voters, at least until the full consequences of Brexit are felt.

There are clear echoes now to the British position in the early days of European integration, based on the sense that the UK is not merely European but ‘global’. These are often seen as mutually exclusive.

Hence why, even at this late stage, the UK is not inevitably heading towards a soft Brexit, despite the apparent legal, technical and economic imperatives to do so. It wouldn’t be the first time Britain had knowingly caused itself serious economic damage because of schizophrenia over Europe.

The United States of Europe?

Much of the UK debate ignores the EU27 position, as epitomised by the continued discussion of future customs arrangements already ruled out by the EU. The fact these are set to be decided at a government away day after the upcoming European Council summit demonstrates this inward focus.

Many Europeans are baffled by the apparent inability of the UK to overcome its domestic contradictions to minimise economic and political harm. The suggestion of a backstop that commits the whole UK to regulatory alignment is seen as unrealistic, as inevitably the UK would start to diverge, not taking well to being a rule-taker.

There is no appetite to offer the UK a favourable long-term deal by default; the EU27 are seeking only to address the unique circumstances of Northern Ireland.

There is now a high level of distrust of what the UK can credibly commit to, especially when it comes to post-Brexit arrangements that will have to be implemented over a number of years by different governments.

At the insistence of Dublin, the Irish backstop has to be legally binding and time unlimited to guarantee the UK commitments made last December. The belief that Ireland will be pressured into softening its stance is misplaced: the issue carries huge domestic political importance.

As the declared national interest of a member state, this position will always be backed by the rest of the EU and the institutions, ensuring that the EU27 remain united over this issue.

While being in a far stronger negotiation position, the EU27 might mistakenly believe that, inevitably, in the end, the UK government will have to concede to avoid the significant harm associated with no deal.

Faced with entrenched DUP and Conservative Brexiteer ideological positions, as well as pressure from soft Brexiteers on all sides, the Prime Minister may simply not command a majority for any form of Brexit.

No deal by default, not design

The government is likely to leave Parliament’s opportunity to vote on the deal as late as possible to put pressure on, particularly Remain, MPs. But if the UK government cannot find a majority for the WA – which could also be scuppered by Brexiteer resistance to the backstop – the EU27 cannot and will not extend the Article 50 period.

There is also no willingness to reopen already agreed issues, although the language in the political declaration could be altered, but only if there is a positive and feasible UK decision on a new long-term direction.

No deal by default implies the most chaotic and harmful Brexit by March 2019. While more negative by far for the UK, this would also impose significant economic costs on the EU27, and especially Ireland.

Can it be avoided? The UK seems trapped in its domestic political processes, with the government hanging on from week to week.

But the EU27 are equally trapped in adhering to their political and legal framework to ensure their ongoing unity, something far more important than the economic harm from a chaotic Brexit.

But this inflexibility also implies that the EU27 will not give way, so, unless the UK government can get the backstop through Westminster, the UK will go over the cliff edge in March next year.

By Matt Bevington is public policy researcher at The UK in a Changing Europe and Dr Fabian Zuleeg is the chief executive of the European Policy Centre. This piece originally featured in Euractiv.

Disclaimer:
The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the UK in a Changing Europe initiative.

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