What is the EU’s Brexit Strategy?

In August 2019, Conservative cabinet minister
Michael Gove said: ‘We stand ready to engage with the European Union … but at the moment
it is the EU that seems to be saying they are not interested. They are simply saying:
‘No, we don’t want to talk.’ I think that is wrong and sad. It is not in Europe’s
interests.’ Since the UK voted to leave the EU on 23 June
2016, numerous British politicians have claimed that the EU’s approach to Brexit has been
unnecessarily inflexible. Of course, it’s in the interests of many to say that – but
is there any truth in this criticism? And what actually is the EU’s Brexit strategy? Put simply, its strategy has been to play
it by the book – its own book of rules. The EU sees itself as a process-driven organisation,
where procedure takes priority over political calculation. From the EU’s point of view it is for other
people – national parliaments, politicians, voting publics – to make the strategic choices.
The EU simply takes a view on whether those choices are allowed by the rules. The repeated
mantra of EU officials has been that Britain decided on Brexit and it is for Britain to
decide what sort of Brexit it wants. ‘The EU cannot rescue Britain. It is up
to them to decide,’ chief negotiator Michel Barnier said in March 2019, before the UK
was granted a six-month extension to its departure date. ‘We consider it is up to Britain to
decide how it wants to proceed,’ outgoing EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker
said in June 2019, after that extension led to the downfall of Theresa May. So what are these rules that underpin the
EU’s negotiating position? First, it insists that it must uphold existing treaties between
member states, especially those governing the four freedoms: free movement of goods,
people, services and capital. If the UK wishes to exit, it cannot be allowed to disrupt the
arrangements between the countries that remain. It also can’t be allowed to ‘cherry-pick’:
for instance, to maintain free movement of services while blocking free movement of people.
For the EU, membership comes as a package: take it or leave it. Second, the EU stands behind the principle
of unanimity that underlies its treaty arrangements. The interests of an individual member state
cannot be sacrificed for the greater good. Just as EU states can veto its treaties, so
the EU insists that its members must stand together in the face of an external threat.
If Brexit poses particular difficulties for Ireland, then the rest of the EU must rally
round its most vulnerable member. It is all for one and one for all. Third, the EU says the divorce needs to be
sorted before a future relationship can be discussed. So Britain has to agree the terms
of its departure – which means paying its bills, including the nearly £40 billion of
ongoing membership contributions, and securing the rights of EU citizens – before being
allowed to talk about how it wants to work with the EU in future. The result is the Withdrawal Agreement negotiated
with May’s government, including its most contentious feature, the Irish backstop, an
insurance policy designed to maintain an open border between Ireland and Northern Ireland
beyond Brexit. The EU says this was the best deal available because it is the only deal
that preserves the integrity of existing treaty arrangements, stands up for the interests
of all member states including Ireland and settles the question of the UK’s outstanding
obligations. But is it really true that other people make
the choices and the EU simply decides what its rules allow? Whatever your views of the
rights and wrongs of Brexit, there are reasons to be sceptical. The EU is not just a set
of rules interpreted by a neutral cadre of bureaucrats. It too is a political organisation.
Like all such organisations it has its own goals, its own internal differences and its
own hypocrisies. Take the backstop. Because it concerns future
arrangements for the Irish border – its provisions only come into effect if the UK
and the EU fail to reach an alternative agreement after Brexit has happened – it breaches
the strict division between the past and the future. It turns out that it is not possible
to uphold existing treaties without making plans for what comes after Brexit. It also turns out some cherry-picking is allowed,
since under the terms of the backstop Northern Ireland would only remain in those parts of
the single market necessary to ensure the functioning of the all-Ireland economy. If
this bit of the future can be discussed, why not anything else? The EU’s answer is that the Irish border
is a special case. It has to insist on the backstop because the Irish government has
insisted on it and the EU cannot be seen to let Ireland down. However, if the backstop
leads to a no deal Brexit, then that principle of all for one and one for all will come under
serious strain. The costs of a no deal Brexit are not going
to be evenly distributed. Ireland might suffer most but so will other countries that trade
heavily with the UK, including Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium. If insisting on the
withdrawal agreement leads to a no-deal Brexit, then rallying round one member state will
leave others exposed. Unanimity will be hard to maintain when it produces more economic
pain in some places than in others. These strains are exacerbated by divisions
between the two leading European politicians, Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron. They appear
to have very different strategic priorities. Merkel wants to minimise the damage of Brexit
and is open to further compromise. Macron wants to minimise the prospect that the uncertainty
over Brexit drags on and on. ‘The EU cannot forever be the hostage of
a political crisis in the UK,’ Macron said in April 2019. A month later he said ‘we
must prevent the next mandate being polluted by this subject we’ve been talking about
for three years.’ The EU’s approach as a treaty-based organisation
has been that it is prepared to be patient: it will take as long as it takes to get this
right. But the EU is also made up of national governments, some of whose leaders have more
patience than others. These governments have different strategic
priorities. The EU is well aware that Brexit is not the only challenge it faces. For many
European politicians other issues are more important. Brexit is getting in the way of
getting bigger things done. Guy Verhofstadt, Brexit co-ordinator for the
European parliament, said in July 2019: ‘Brexit is more than a tragedy – it is a waste of
all of our time, in an era when China and the US are fighting for global hegemony and
the climate crisis threatens our very existence.’ That implies Brexit is irrelevant to the largest
questions of geopolitics. This has been the EU’s approach from the off: Brexit simply
needs to be settled before they get on to the serious stuff. The bureaucrats have to
do their job so that the politicians can get back to doing theirs. But Brexit is a geopolitical question too.
In the fight for global hegemony, where a post-Brexit Britain sits will matter for the
EU as well. Refusing to consider it – seeing Brexit as nothing more than a process to be
settled – is a hostage to fortune. Waiting until Brexit is done before deciding how it
affects the threats posed by Trump, Iran, Putin, Huawei, Facebook, Hong Kong, climate
change, migration, and so much more, may not just be the absence of a strategy. It may
be a strategic mistake. The Brexit negotiations have sometimes been
portrayed as a game of chicken: each side is hoping the other will blink first. In a
game of chicken the best strategy is to look like you have no choice but to keep going.
If two cars are on a collision course and one driver seems unable or unwilling to turn,
the other one will. The EU says it can’t turn because it has
to abide by its rules. We shall see. But just as this is new territory for the UK, it’s
new territory for the EU – and it’s possible Brexit creates a contradiction at the heart
of its rule book.

Author Since: Mar 11, 2019

  1. More compromises will let to the downfall of the union. The interest of the union shouldn’t be forgone for the interest of a leaving member.

  2. “Procedure takes priority of political ambition” so is countries voting against the constitutional treaty and then sliding in the Lisbon Treaty following the rules? The EU is a very dangerous organisation and needs to cease to exist

  3. It won't happen . The money ppl in London, will kick this …..on until 2 , 3 yrs then ….
    Another in out vote
    Which remain will win . Simples.

  4. Hey,
    Really liked your video.
    Could you do a video about Bolsonaro and the fire in the rainforest.
    I think that is a really interesting topic and very hard to understand.
    Depending on which article you look at, the one say, Bolsonaro is bad and he encourages the farmers to burn down the rain forest and others say Bolsonaro is good for Brazil, the fires in the rainforest are under the average in this year compared to the last 15 years and the fire was started by NGO's that are corrupt, just like the former government, and want to gain attention or hurt Bolsonaro.
    Which is the case now? It seems like there is a lot of propaganda going on here… and I don't know who to believe

  5. The EU has legal power over every member state and people can't realise how this allows the unelected officials at the top of it power they didn't earn, supposedly in the interests of freedom and peace. Let's leave that crumbling illusion. We're worth more than this.

  6. You took two different statement out of context . EU said sort out UK leaving before negotiating future relationship bc it works best for them. Then you question EU statement about it worries about future relationship with China usa and slide in that UK post Brexit status play a role in UK future relationship with EU( as it is hypocrisy). Two different conversation out of context. Stick to football. You trying to sound smart for view is less annoying than this sensationalism and taking two talking point out of context.

  7. Good video up until 4.30 The EU has been clear all along they aren't going to breach their own treaties. Yes Brexit is a strategic mistake, but it is a mistake that Britain made by itself.

  8. Pay off the quislings in parliament, then be as difficult as possible! If we really were going to leave on no deal, then they will panic. £12 billion a year, £70 billion minimum deficit to the EU, I can see a reason they will make it as difficult as possible to leave. WE WANT TO LEAVE!!!!!!!!

  9. For me the game of chicken analogy doesn't seem to fit. The EU will of course lose something, but it isn't on the same level as what the UK would lose. Therefore, I cannot see them backing down, as Johnson makes some awful attempt to signal that we are heading for no deal

  10. The EU’s rule book is not the only thing stopping it from giving concessions. Granting a soft Brexit will embolden anti-EU parties in other member states which would jeopardize the whole union. A no deal Brexit will hurt the EU but giving in to Johnson and encouraging other member states to leave would be catastrophic.

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