The Brexit negotiations have coincided with a period of high political uncertainty in the EU27. Across Europe, governments are being confronted with significant challenges, including controversial constitutional reforms (in Poland and Hungary), the persistence of euroscepticism and the continuing (albeit diminished for the moment at least) impact of the refugee crisis.
In the year since the triggering of Article 50, six EU countries besides the UK (Malta, France, Germany, Austria, Czech Republic and Italy) have held general elections, and several more have elected presidents. At least in the UK, some thought that the impact of Brexit might be to strengthen eurosceptic parties and even to signal the beginning of the unravelling of European integration.
However, in key EU27 states Brexit has had little effect. Since the referendum, instead of bolstering euroscepticism, Brexit has led to a toning-down in the ambitions of eurosceptic parties across Europe. It played little role in any of the European elections, with eurosceptic parties failing to use it as a frame in their electoral campaigns.
During the first year of the Brexit negotiations, Germany supported the approach that was adopted by the European Commission with conviction: the need for ‘sufficient progress’ on citizens’ rights, the UK’s financial obligations and the Irish border before talks over future trade arrangements could begin.
For Germany, the main priority is the future of the EU27 and the preservation of the integrity of the single market. Despite British hopes that German industry would lobby to allow the UK preferential access to the single market post-Brexit, the German government has repeatedly rejected the possibility of the UK cherry-picking aspects of EU membership.
These positions reflected a broad consensus within the country, accepted among large portions of the electorate, the federal states, industry and most political parties (except for the eurosceptic Alternative für Deutschland). Brexit was not a major issue in the national elections in September 2017 and was rarely discussed during the campaign.
The difficulties in forming a new government in Germany might have temporarily decreased its global and European clout, but they have not changed the substance of its Brexit positions. The 177–page coalition deal, signed in February 2018, which paved the way for a grand coalition government, contains only one reference to Brexit. Chancellor Merkel has recently suggested that a unique, tailor-made deal for UK is possible, but it is unlikely that this indicates a significant change of Germany’s commitment to protect the integrity of the single market.
Just a few weeks after Article 50 was triggered, the French electoral season began, with two rounds each of the presidential and legislative elections. Ultimately, the presidential contest took place between a europhile liberal centrist, Emmanuel Macron, and a nationalist, eurosceptic and anti-immigration party led by Marine Le Pen.
Ms Le Pen first reacted positively to Brexit, promising to take France out of the euro, before rowing back on this promise later. However, Brexit became ever less important in debates during the campaign.
The victory of Mr Macron was arguably an important moment for Brexit and the future of European integration, as he supported the Commission’s Brexit approach (although we cannot know what Ms Le Pen would have done), while aiming to work closely with Germany to strengthen the EU.
In southern Europe, Spain has important economic and social links with the UK. While the Spanish political system has recently become more fragmented and diversified with the emergence of several new parties, there is broad political consensus on how to approach Brexit.
In the first phase of the talks, the Spanish government diligently followed the European Commission’s lead. Spanish elections were held just three days after the UK’s EU referendum, and all the major parties lamented Brexit. Unlike other major EU countries, there is no eurosceptic party in the Spanish Parliament.
The mainstream parties even used Brexit against the new Podemos party, framing it as a populist danger to stability. Conversely, in Italy, euroscepticism has been on the rise. Immediately after the Brexit vote, a number of right-wing parties applauded the British public’s decision to leave the EU.
However, anti-EU sentiment has halted since the Brexit referendum. So far, the Italian government has kept in line with the objectives and strategies of the Commission, while also advocating a constructive approach in the negotiations.
A few members of the Italian government, including Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, have spoken in favour of a bespoke model for the future UK-EU trading relationship. In the run-up to the March 2018 Italian elections, Brexit was hardly mentioned. While the formation of the government is still under consideration, less EU-friendly parties will likely become part of it.
The party that won most votes in the recent elections, Movimento Cinque Stelle (Five Star Movement), has repeatedly called for a referendum on Italy’s participation in the euro. On the whole, however, Italy has not played a major role in shaping the EU’s negotiating positions, and it is unlikely this will change whichever parties are in power.
In eastern Europe, Brexit came at a time of per-sistent criticism of Brussels, especially regarding the handling of immigration from outside the EU. Nevertheless, despite Poland and Hungary being run by eurosceptic parties, even in eastern Europe Brexit has not been important to electorates. The ruling parties in Poland and Hungary have mainly used the Brexit vote to criticise the EU’s attempts to interfere in the domestic politics of member states.
Eastern European countries have had to balance their affinity with the UK with their concrete interests in the Brexit negotiations. They might be more favourable than others to the UK’s continued access to the single market post-Brexit, but in the first phase of the talks they firmly supported the Commission in protecting EU citizens’ rights in the UK and demanding an adequate financial settlement.
Finally, some of the UK’s closest allies in the EU, such as Sweden and Denmark, were particularly concerned about the economic consequences of Brexit. However, the main parties of the two countries have been united in defending the integrity of the single market. In the Netherlands, despite the presence of Geert Wilders’ euro-sceptic party, Brexit hardly attracted any attention in the elections of March 2017.
Wilders remains committed to opposing Dutch EU membership, and yet immigration and ‘Islamisation’ were the main themes of his party’s campaign. In terms of their negotiating positions, the Dutch – like the Nordic states – want to maintain strong economic ties with the UK while not allowing any form of cherry-picking from the single market.
In sum, Brexit appears to have had little effect on domestic politics across the continent, with the major member states remaining committed to the Commission’s negotiating approach. In countries that are sympathetic to the UK’s position, governments have so far prioritised the interests of their citizens and the EU budget over supporting concessions for the UK.
Even the UK’s closest allies have held firm to the Commission’s approach to protect the integrity of the single market as a first order priority. However, differences among member states are more likely to emerge in the second phase of talks, when EU27 unity will be more seriously tested.
By Nicola Chelotti, Lecturer in Diplomacy and International Governance at Lough borough university London.