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RUSI - Negotiating Britain’s EU Departure: From Tears to Hard-Headed Calculations

First indications of Britain’s negotiating stance with the EU are beginning to appear. They are shrewder and more realistic than commonly assumed, but will also require emotions to be tempered by hard-headed calculations, if Britain’s marginalisation in Europe is to be avoided.

Prime Minister David Cameron fought hard to hold back tears as he announced a less-than-glorious end to his political career in the aftermath of the EU referendum result. Still, his departure speech, delivered from the steps of 10 Downing Street, included some interesting although well-concealed first pointers as to how Britain proposes to handle its ‘divorce’ negotiations with the rest of Europe.

The first interesting hint given by the Prime Minister is that the government may be thinking of including representatives of the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish devolved administrations in the negotiating team with Brussels, or at the very least instituting a formal mechanism of consultation between the British negotiating team and the devolved administrations. That is politically shrewd, for at least four reasons: it will allow these administrations a direct stake in the talks; it may actually increase the effectiveness and clout of the British team during the negotiations with Brussels; it could improve Britain’s chances of getting a better deal from the rest of the EU; and, finally, it may help deflate some of the inevitable separatist pressures, particularly in Scotland. 

The prime minister also made clear that the government only expects to formally notify Brussels of the UK’s intent to leave the Union – as is required under the provisions of Article 50 of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty –  after Downing Street has a new occupant, presumably sometime in early October. That is also significant, because it offers us some insight into the UK’s approach to future negotiations. 

It would appear that the British negotiating strategy with Europe will be to keep talking for as long as possible, in the hope that, as time goes by, the Europeans would either relent and offer better conditions, or that the mood of the British electorate would change, and the UK could aim for a closer relationship with Europe. And the British negotiating position is already obvious: London will ask for the maintenance of free trade arrangements; for the automatic retention of trade treaties with countries outside the EU; for a formal mechanism of political consultation with the EU which would allow the British to retain some influence in Europe; but it will also demand to be exempt from the duty to allow other EU citizens unrestricted residence and work rights in the UK.  

That will place the EU in a dilemma. On the one hand, the temptation to offer Britain generous terms of co-operation once it has left the Union will be great; quite apart from the fact that no-one wants to keep the continent on permanent tenterhooks, the rest of the EU runs a massive trade surplus with Britain, equalling £65 billion a year, so it will clearly have no incentive to disrupt relations with London.

But if the EU grants Britain too many concessions during the separation negotiations, this could open the floodgates to demands from other member states either for their own special status within the Union, or for the chance to depart from the EU altogether. So, EU negotiators will have to straddle the line between being tough and inclusive, not an easy task with a process which is completely unknown and untested, and which will be run by a collective of 27 states, rather than just one negotiator. The consensus is that Europe may well need the entire two years allocated for such a separation process under current treaties before reaching a deal which is unlikely to be fully satisfactory to either side.

But Britain is not exactly bereft of options. To start with, until the decision is made by the government to activate the provision of Article 50, nobody else can do it, so the initiative of when to start negotiations still rests with London. Secondly, during the period of two years from the activation of the provisions of the Article, Britain can reject or refuse to sign any inferior or substandard deal offered by the Union. True, after the period of two years Britain would risk being ejected from the EU without any agreement, but it’s unlikely that the Union itself would risk two years of pointless haggling with the UK. And although the British would be asked to leave the conference room any time the EU’s negotiating position on Brexit is discussed, British officials will continue to take part in other EU activities, so it is hard to see how the UK would be isolated in the Brexit negotiations, but then still be asked to support other EU activities or member states. In practice, some accommodation will be expected, as would some flexibility and transparency in these discussions. 

Yet there are other short or medium-term ramifications of the British vote over which London exercises no control. One such question is NATO. Mr Cameron is due to attend the Alliance’s summit in Warsaw early next month, and is guaranteed to argue that whatever  ‘difficulties’  the UK has with the EU, they will not  diminish the UK’s commitments to NATO. Allies will believe the British reassurance, but they will also wonder whether Europe’s security debate can be compartmentalised in this way. The French in particular are likely to use the British vote as an excuse to put on hold discussions about closer EU–NATO co-operation, and may well revive their old arguments that a certain duplication of military structures inside the EU will be required; paradoxically, the dreaded debate about the so-called ‘EU Army’ will be rekindled precisely because Britain’s footprint in the Union is diminishing. 

But there is also another development which is likely to preoccupy European leaders as they handle Britain’s divorce talks: the danger that the British referendum model will become a magnet for similar demands in other parts of the continent. French National Front leader Marine Le Pen has already proclaimed ‘Victory for freedom!’ and has called for a referendum in France. Dutch far-right leader Geert Wilders followed suit adding: ‘We want to be in charge of our own country, our own money, our own borders, and our own immigration policy’. 

Not many countries are likely to face demands for an ‘in-out’ referendum of the British variety, because the political dynamics in every EU member state are different. But there will be demands for other referendums on narrower topics such as austerity, the jurisdiction of European courts, the distribution of funds or the EU’s social agenda, which is resented in some new member states from central and Eastern Europe. While the British government may not wish to encourage this copycat behaviour, it will not have any control over such matters, which are likely to further complicate the departure negotiations. 

No carefully laid plan survives contact with reality. Still it is at least partly reassuring that Britain appears to have a plan to deal with a reality which, even one day ago, seemed to belong to the realm of nightmarish fantasy. 

Complicated ‘Divorce’ Procedures

  • UK has the initiative in activating the separation procedure, under Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty;

  • Once the UK Government notifies the EU that it intends to leave, the two sides have up to two years to negotiate the departure;

  • The process can be extended beyond two years, but only by unanimity;

  • The pace of the discussions will be formally determined by the EU, not the British government;

  • Any deal on Britain’s departure will require the approval of at least 21 EU member-states representing at least 81 percent of the EU’s total population. 

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