The EU depends on its member states for its legal, financial and political existence and so is usually willing to try to accommodate their “local difficulties”. In the UK’s case, this meant Jean Claude Juncker (President of the Commission) and especially Donald Tusk (President of the European Council) trying to find an accommodation in the renegotiation that would allow Cameron to take back something valuable in the coming referendum campaign, but also respecting the interests of other members.
From the EU perspective, the resultant “new settlement” was a sincere effort to give Cameron a leg-up, albeit one pointedly draped in language that reminded everyone that the treaties already allowed for much more flexibility than public debate seemed to suppose. However, the overblown rhetoric that Cameron had taken into the renegotiation meant that any advantage he might have gained was lost in the howls of the British press about being short-changed.
Unsurprising as this was, it confirmed the dominant view in Brussels that the best subsequent course of action was to maintain a very low profile, as any intervention in the referendum was likely to back fire. Either the vote would be won – in which case the new settlement would come into effect and normal service would resume, or lost – in which case contingency plans would kick in.
The outline of these plans was always clear before the referendum itself, but was expanded upon very quickly afterwards, notably in the statements on 24 and 28 June from EU leaders.
In essence, the EU’s position was, and continues to be, that if the UK wants to leave the organisation, then it should do so, following the procedure established for just such an eventuality: the infamous Article 50. While it is simple to state the Union’s view, it carries with it a number of key consequences. First, it fits with the EU’s tradition of trying to balance local needs with common interests. If the renegotiation was not enough to convince the British public, then their views must be respected. However, this implies respecting the views of other member states that were not willing to offer further concessions to the UK: hence, no post referendum renegotiations.
Second, and linked to this, the UK will not get special treatment. The renegotiation text itself applied to all member states, with the sole exception for the UK being a confirmation that it already met the threshold to limit benefits. Likewise, the EU has a process for departure, and a process for establishing third-country relations, both of which will be used to establish a new relationship with the UK. Thirdly, the insistence on Article 50 places the EU in a strong negotiating position. The dynamic of the negotiations will be one of the EU making an offer to the UK, rather than vice versa.
We have already seen this with the publication of detailed EU negotiating guidelines. While the EU is free to make whatever offer it wishes to the UK, the UK will be limited to working around that agenda, responding rather than defining. This imbalance of power partly explains the long delay between the referendum and the notification that the UK wanted to trigger Article 50. As long as the British Government did not trigger the procedure, there was no time pressure, and an opportunity to try and influence the content and direction of negotiations. However, in the absence of any coherent British policy on how to approach the negotiations, and in the face of evident determination on the part of the EU institutions to avoid any pre-notification talks, this opportunity ultimately came to nothing.
One year on
As the UK begins substantive negotiations, it faces an EU with a very well-developed organisational structure and a negotiating position that enjoys a high level of buy-in from all sides. Importantly, any potential for conflict between the European Council, Commission and European Parliament was addressed early on. European Council President Donald Tusk quickly took the lead as the main contact point at the level of heads of government, while the Commission built a dedicated negotiating team around Michel Barnier.
Meanwhile, the European Parliament was able to influence the formulation of the negotiating mandates. Its role under its “lead negotiator” Guy Verhofstadt might be best thought of as that of a (not very) bad cop alongside the Commission, promising to veto any agreement that does not secure citizens’ rights. Close coordination between the EU institutions will also limit the UK’s ability to play them off against each other, something that might potentially have complicated ratification of
The unity of the institutions will be severely tested in the rest of 2017, as one of the main principles of the mandate is challenged by the UK, namely sequencing. While the mandate does have some flexibility, it essentially assumes that liabilities of membership – including finances – must be resolved before any discussion of the new relationship. Given the politically toxic nature of the money question for the UK Government, it is understandable that it would prefer to bundle everything up together, if only to distract attention.
As ever, the EU is sympathetic to this – hence its clear focus on principles for calculating liabilities, rather than using actual figures – but its need to cover the gaps in financing for other member states suggest that it will stand its ground on this issue.
Whether the EU institutions will be willing or able to maintain their positions through to the end of Article 50 remains to be seen; given developments to date, it looks much more likely that it will be the UK that has to cleave to the EU, rather than the other way around. Indeed, the unity of the EU has an intrinsic value as a symbol of European cooperation that will make it that much harder to
compromise or shift its position.
By Simon Usherwood, reader in politics at University of Surrey. This piece was taken from our EU referendum: one year on report, which you can read in full here.