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Michel Barnier, the EU’s Chief Negotiator for Brexit.
Photograph: DG EMPL, Flickr

British Prime Minister Theresa May outlined her government’s vision for Brexit in a speech delivered in Florence on September 22. In a bid to breathe new life into ongoing UK-EU negotiations, she presented proposals regarding the rights of EU citizens living in the UK, the length of a “transition period” after 2019, and the sum Britain might pay during that period. Rather than inspiring counterproposals or constructive criticism from EU leaders, May’s speech generated little more than the same refrain repeated from Brussels since negotiations began: that more “clarity” was needed, and that “sufficient progress” would have to be made before talks could advance. This lacklustre, somewhat apathetic EU position does not look like the result of sincere consideration of May’s proposals, or a constructive attitude towards the talks. Rather, it looks a lot more like a deliberate tactic to either prevent Brexit, or punish Britain.

Some might find this approach perplexing. After all, is it not in both parties’ interests to negotiate a mutually-beneficial outcome? Not necessarily…

To better understand Brussels’ foot-dragging in Brexit talks, it helps to understand the incentives driving it. First and foremost, the EU is a political union. Economic, social, or environmental considerations may all have contributed to the appeal of ever-closer union, but they remain secondary to the very political objective of federal statehood. Indeed, from the days of Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman at the dawn of European integration, to more the more recent mandates of José Manuel Barroso, Viviane Reding, or Guy Verhofstadt, the goal of a pan-European nation state is no secret.

Grasping that European statehood is the EU’s ultimate objective is essential for the UK government’s Brexit Secretary David Davis and his team of negotiators as they engage with their counterparts. It means that, no matter how amenable the UK is to facilitating trade or subsidizing the EU’s budget, the bottom line in Brussels remains the preservation of their political project. The win-win economic gains desired by the UK are not necessarily desired by the EU, for whom a successful Britain would signal there is no longer any economic appeal to remaining in the bloc. A strong UK economy poses an existential threat to European integration.

This explains why trade negotiations have not even begun, despite both parties already sharing near-identical norms and regulations. It is also why the EU seems in no rush to maintain access to the UK’s large consumer market, with Britons buying more from the EU than the other way around. In order to preserve the union, the EU’s only options are to ensure the UK remains inside, or fails outside.

When seen through this lens, the whole exercise of negotiating seems futile. Of course, Britain is right to try, as it shows good faith as good neighbours. But in order to make the most of Brexit, the UK government needs to radically shift its focus to the next chapter of its national history, rather than dwell on the previous one. As championed by major figures in the Leave campaign, Britain should embrace the opportunities afforded to it by its newfound freedom to trade with the world. With Japan, Australia, the United States, Canada, New Zealand and others eager to engage with the UK after it leaves, Whitehall resources would be better spent solidifying the relationships of tomorrow, rather than appeasing the relationships of yesterday.

The good news is that many in Britain already understand this. Recent commentaries by cabinet ministers David Davis, Boris Johnson, and Liam Fox suggest they are well aware of the EU’s motivations. The question is, will the rest of the cabinet, and indeed the rest of Parliament follow their lead and make the most of the incredible opportunities offered by Brexit; or will they remain fixated on negotiations with a counterpart that wants them to fail?


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