The authoritative source for independent research on UK-EU relations

05 Dec 2016


UK-EU Relations


Don’t think the European ‘Union’ is united

Brexit negotiations are often portrayed as ‘UK-EU’, but that simplifies the unity on both sides. Britain’s approach reflects the positions of a range of decision makers across Britain. The situation in the rEU (rest of the EU) is even more complex. The EU side of the negotiations will represent twenty seven member states, the Parliament and the Commission. Each state has unique domestic political games. As the Canadian European Trade Agreement showed, it takes only one regional parliament – or a referendum, parliamentary vote or court ruling – to disrupt the process.

Don’t focus on the big players or only Germany

For many the best way to come to terms with the multiple rEU actors is to focus on the larges states: France, Italy, Germany and Poland. But size, as they say, isn’t everything. There are few EU states that do not have some direct interest in the game. However, Brexit is important in different ways to different states. Nor can we look merely to Germany to understand what will happen. Germany will be key to negotiations, but for the leader of the EU, Brexit is not about German-British relations, it is about how this could reshape the Union it leads.

Brexit is not just about relations with Britain, it is about the future of the EU.

Bilateral relations with Britain certainly matter to each state, but they are only part of the story. Views on Brexit are also about how Brexit might reshape the rEU. Lets take the examples of Romania or Bulgaria, two of the newest members. Like the UK-EU renegotiation, Brexit could restructure a Union where they already struggle to keep up with integration. Further integration or the emergence of a clearer multi-speed Europe could marginalise them further. For those states with few links to Britain, Brexit will be about securing concessions on other matters from those states that do. The biggest overall question the rEU will grapple with is whether Brexit adds to forces that lead to the EU’s disintegration or integration.

Don’t overlook the institutions

EU institutions are often vilified in the British press, but they will have a say on Brexit. If Theresa May wants a good deal she’ll need to deliver a staller speech to the European Parliament. Despite the potential for it to shoot down any deal (including after it’s been ratified by Britain and the rEU), the role of the European Court of Justice has been entirely overlooked. The Commission will shape negotiations through doing most of the detailed preparation. Once again, it’s important to avoid thinking the institutions will view Brexit through the lens of relations with Britain. More important will be their manoeuvring to position themselves within the EU that emerges from Brexit. The European Parliament especially will be hostile to a deal reached by some of the larger member states with little regard to the positions of others in the EU, because that would point to a Union run by the largest states.

Don’t forget non-EU Europe

Any Brexit deal will also reshape the EU’s relations with states such as Norway, Switzerland, Turkey, Iceland, Lichtenstein, Ukraine and non-EU states in the Balkans. Each of these states has, to varying extents, built relations with the EU that most clearly in the cases of Norway and Switzerland were intended as conveyor belts that would eventually draw them into the EU. Brexit could throw those belts into reverse. If Britain did want to seek an EEA style deal, akin to that of Norway, then Norway will get a say. If Britain gets a unique deal then some in those states might seek to emulate it. Brexit therefore holds the potential to be one of the pressures that reconfigure the politics and relationships of the whole of Europe.

Europe’s three hegemons will shape the context of Brexit

Europe’s three hegemons – Germany, the USA and Russia – will shape the broad political, economic and security context within which Brexit unfolds. While earlier it was argued that we should avoid focusing on large EU member states, it’s clear that the choices of these three – whether to engage, exploit or ignore – will shape the context of European and international politics in which Brexit unfolds.

Avoid trying to understand Brexit without a theoretical framework

A reactionary approach focusing on daily gossip and debates only gets us so far because we end up overwhelmed by information. What is needed is a theoretical framework that allows us to sift through the noise of Brexit to tune in to the most important developments. Most will recoil at the word ‘theoretical’, forgetting that theories are tools we use to highlight the defining aspects of any development. There are four theoretical approaches we can use to analyse Brexit: realism (national interests will prevail), constructivism (ideas will define it), cognitivism (the outlooks of individual leaders will shape Brexit) and bureaucratic politics (it will be the institutions and processes).

Don’t assume all will turn out well for the rEU.

The potential for Britain to be hurt by Brexit is greater than that for the rEU, but that doesn’t mean the rEU won’t feel some pain with potentially disastrous consequences. When looking at the rEU’s approach to Brexit we should heed the following two points. First, that Britain has not yet felt any big shock from Brexit makes a ‘hard Brexit’ more plausible. The same applies for an rEU that has also yet to feel any shock. That risks overlooking the longer-term consequences of Brexit on the EU and Europe as a whole. Second, don’t assume European integration is irreversible and that withdrawal is something that applies only to Britain. For a long time discussion of an EU member state withdrawing was a taboo. With a few exceptions, there are next to no theories of European disintegration. That is myopic and makes for a stunted debate about what could happen next to the rEU.

Dr Tim Oliver is a Dahrendorf Fellow at LSE IDEAS and a Visiting Scholar at New York University.


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