Britain remains a full member of the EU until the completion of withdrawal negotiations. It is important to re-state this obvious point because regardless of the Brexit process, the EU continues to function and therefore the UK continues to have a say (and a vote) on all EU decision-making via the Council of Ministers. The question then is how that will work: how will the dynamics of ‘normal life’ in the Council interact with the Brexit process?
The Council, which agrees all EU legislation in conjunction with the European Parliament, is not a single, unitary body. It exists in a number of ministerial formations covering the range of policy areas dealt with at EU level and is dependent on a complex sub-structure: most policy is decided at the ambassadorial level in the two committees of the Permanent Representatives (Corepers I & II) and the Political and Security Committee. Supporting these are dozens of working parties and technical groups which deal with specific policy questions, ranging from highly technical regulations relating to the Single Market to the implementation of sanctions against Russia.
All member states are represented and involved in continuous negotiations and decision-making across all issues and at every level, and the UK is no exception.
So what happens once Article 50 is triggered? Will the UK still try to influence Council decision-making at all levels? Will it be able to, given the pressure the Brexit negotiations will place on its administrative and diplomatic resources? And how will the EU-27 respond to British efforts to continue to play a role? To help us think about these questions, three simple scenarios are mapped out below.
Scenario #1: malign influence
The possibility of keeping the Brexit negotiations separate from ongoing Council business seems fanciful. Even though the UK will be negotiating primarily with the Commission’s Brexit team led by Michel Barnier, it is the Council that agrees and supervises the execution of the negotiating mandate. Both sides may see potential for linkages, and for the UK the possibility of using its voice and voting weight in the Council to press for concessions in the negotiations may become appealing, particularly if the latter become difficult.
A general strategy of obstructionism is unlikely to work. However, the UK may seek to remind its interlocutors on occasion of its preparedness and ability to play hard ball. Given the existing cleavages within the Council on a range of issues, including the Eurozone crisis and even the future of integration itself, the UK may see opportunities to apply pressure.
Such a strategy in not without risks, though. Whatever the possible short-term gains, time is not on the British side. The closer we get to the 2-year Article 50 ‘guillotine’ – which must factor in time for European Parliamentary approval – the less effective this approach.
Scenario #2: lame duck
If the Brexit negotiations become increasingly difficult and bogged-down, both Britain’s interest in and capacity to influence ongoing discussions on other policy matters will diminish.
Domestically, Britain’s EU expertise and resources have been concentrated in the newly-established Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU). DExEU has therefore assumed from the Cabinet Office the responsibilities for co-ordinating all Britain’s EU policy inputs. However, given its primary objective is British withdrawal, this will be the focus of its limited resources, meaning the EU’s ordinary day-to-day business may have to take a back seat. If the ability of UK officials to maintain involvement is reduced, their EU counterparts will see them as increasingly marginalised.
Under this scenario, the UK will become semi-isolated, increasingly uninterested in engaging in discussion and negotiation on issues that will be perceived as being of limited relevance once it has exited.
Scenario #3: honest broker
The most optimistic of the three scenarios is that the UK will seek to play a constructively neutral role within the Council, foreshadowing a positive post-Brexit partnership with the EU. Recognising it has a clear long-term interest in the EU’s continuing stability and integrity, Britain will work towards compromise and agreement in policy areas where it has a clear interest, such as developing the Digital Single Market. Moreover, a political view could be taken that a willingness to pursue constructive participation will bring benefits to the parallel exit negotiations.
While this scenario may seem far-fetched, it should be remembered that in terms of the process of Council decision-making, Britain enjoys a solid reputation for the quality of its officials, the clarity and coherence of its negotiating positions and its ability to craft compromises. It certainly has the capacity to play the role of honest broker, should it wish to.
There are obvious difficulties, though. First, any such approach would likely be predicated on the Brexit negotiations proceeding satisfactorily. Second, it would also entail a willingness on the part of the EU-27 to ‘permit’ Britain to play such a role. Third, it would require political leadership from London to ensure this happens.
Both sides have emphasised their desire to establish a constructive and effective post-Brexit relationship. While Britain may be known more for pragmatism than long-term vision, in this case the former serves the latter: the pragmatic approach might be to nurture and promote the post-Brexit relationship by playing a positive role in its final two years as a Council member.
Of the three scenarios, some form of the second currently seems most likely, although we may see elements of the other two along the way. The pressure on the UK to reach agreement will only increase as the negotiating clock runs down. Meanwhile, resource and capacity constraints increase the probability of semi-detachment from the EU’s day-to-day business as the UK prioritises the Brexit negotiations. Finally, the attitude of the EU-27 to their soon-to-be-former partner will be key. Within days of the referendum result in June, officials in Brussels were already talking in terms of the ‘EU-27 plus Britain’, emphasising that the psychological split has already begun.
While both sides hope for a smooth ‘divorce’, it will likely be difficult and at times acrimonious. It is difficult to imagine that this won’t spill over into the business of the Council.
Dr Nick Wright teaches EU politics at University College London. His research focuses on the consequences of Brexit for Whitehall and UK foreign policy, and he is currently writing a book on German, French and British engagement with the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy.