The Brexit negotiations have been testing for the EU. From the British media coverage, one could be led to believe that Brussels has had a cunning plan ever since the referendum of June 2016 to derail the UK’s separation from the Union.
Some UK politicians and commentators have even suggested that the remaining EU member states fully intended to ‘punish’ the Brits during negotiations. The truth, however, is very different. Seen from the EU side, it has since the very beginning been the political infighting within the UK, rather than unreasonable or unpredictable demands by the EU, which has marred the negotiation process.
The reality for EU governments is that Brexit represents a significant political and economic loss, at a time where they cannot afford vulnerability. Several other challenges confront the Union: looming global trade wars, eurozone woes, security threats, illiberal politics within the EU, energy policy disputes, and migration pressures, to name but the most pressing problems. Meanwhile, governments have to continue to play their parts in the day-to-day activities of the Union such as in consumer protection, environmental standards, agricultural and fishery policies, or research and innovation.
It is within this broader political context that the EU27 have had to safeguard the core principles of the Union and unity of its member states during the Brexit negotiations. This means standing up for the ‘four freedoms’ and the interests of small member states such as Ireland. But it has never been an objective to impose any losses on the UK as a result of its decision to leave.
Indeed, the EU27 had hoped for a much closer relationship with the UK than that implied by the Withdrawal Agreement negotiated with the British government. Few expected the UK to adopt a position where it would reject membership of the EU’s single market and customs union, as proposed by Mrs May. Nor did they expect the situation to get to the current cliff-edge moment, where the risk of a no deal Brexit is very real.
To the EU, the Brexit negotiations have therefore in many ways been a disappointment. The hard-fought compromise set out in the Withdrawal Agreement was certainly not portrayed in Brussels as a ‘win’ for either the UK nor the EU. To most, it seems instead as if both sides are set to lose.
And so this is the state of play for the EU: the governments and EU negotiators are waiting to see what will emerge from the infighting in the UK, having been assured by Theresa May that she would be able to secure a majority for the deal in Parliament. After these most recent votes, her government’s credibility is running low in Brussels.
Therefore, whatever comes next, the UK Parliament should keep in mind that, for the EU, the Withdrawal Agreement will likely remain the starting point for any negotiations going forward: it is what they have been able to find agreement for amongst the 27 remaining EU governments, and they are not interested in prolonging negotiations much longer.
This is not to suggest that the EU feels comfortable with the looming ‘no deal Brexit’ scenario. On the EU side, there is a shared concern about the legal vacuum that would ensue under such circumstances. EU businesses and financial markets are set to face significant economic loses – although not, it is worth noting, to the same extent as the UK.
While the no deal scenario is not desirable for EU27, nor is it in their interest to continue to extend negotiations over the UK’s withdrawal without a plan. Many commentators have said this is mainly due to the short-term hurdle of the European Parliament elections in May, which would require the UK to hold elections alongside all other EU member states. This would no doubt be disruptive – and rather chaotic – not least as British candidates to the European Parliament election may effectively run their campaigns based on Brexit/Remain platforms rather than on political proposals for EU’s agenda and policies going forward.
But the real concerns by the EU27 regarding any continued negotiations of the withdrawal arrangements relate to two other issues: first, the UK’s role during an extended Article 50 period. The EU27 will be preparing negotiations for the next EU multi-annual budget (for 2021-2017) and other important policy initiatives during the autumn of 2019 and into 2020.
The UK government would have to honour its commitments but also have full voting power if it remains a member during these negotiations. This would be hugely controversial both in London and Brussels, and EU negotiators are worried about a potentially disruptive participation by a British government.
The second concern relates to whether EU governments are confident they can contain any effects of the Brexit debate from ‘spilling over’ into their own domestic debates. Several incumbent governments face strong eurosceptic political forces at home, and so far the Brexit debate has worked to dissuade such scepticism to develop any further; it is clear from the current situation that exiting the EU is costly both economically and politically.
However, if the UK succeeds in getting a ‘fudged’ exit, the EU will lose credibility and pressures may increase for other governments to consider their commitments too. This is particularly important in countries where national or regional elections are coming up, such as Spain, Poland, Finland, Portugal, Belgium, Denmark, Bulgaria, Latvia and Greece. In France, the Gillet Jaunes also continue their pressure on President Macron, and Germany is concerned about the prospects of Chancellor Merkel’s departure after their next elections.
In short: as things stand, the political context will be no less demanding for EU governments going forward, and the EU simply cannot afford prolonging the uncertainty surrounding Britain’s position as it seeks to exit the EU. Having pushed the boundaries both in terms of content and negotiation tactics during this exit phase, the UK will be welcomed in whichever discussions come next – but it should not expect any favours from its European neighbours!
By Dr Sarah Hagemann, a senior fellow at The UK in a Changing Europe and Associate Professor in European Politics at the London School of Economics. This article is from our ‘Article 50 two years on’ report.