In the period immediately after the Brexit referendum I often heard the line from pro-Brexit people in the UK that it would only be a matter of time before the EU would be begging the UK to somehow stay in the European Union, or at the very least that the EU would seek the closest possible relationship with the UK after Brexit. After all, these Brexiteers argued, the Irish had voted again on the Treaty of Lisbon and France and Netherlands had been accommodated after voting against the European Constitution. The last few days make me wonder if the UK side is still not fully disabused of this idea.
In reality, 10 months on from the referendum, the EU trying to keep the UK close is clearly not what has happened. There have been no such efforts from the EU side, and indeed quite the opposite – the EU position has hardened.
In the pre-Article 50 period the EU was resolute – there were to be no pre-negotiations. Those months allowed the EU to prepare its positions and build its negotiation team. The EU has then waited for Britain to come forward with some solid proposals for what it actually wants from Brexit.
The European Union has been clear about how the procedure to exit will work – three things (the exit bill, the exit terms, and citizens’ rights) have to be sorted first, before the terms of future trade can be agreed upon. If the UK does not go along with this then, tough, no trade deal, and Britain crashes out. This is exactly the line defended by Juncker at the infamous dinner with May and Davis last week in London.
This may all sound rather tough, but the EU side knows very well that a no-deal, crash-out Brexit, damages the UK far more than it damages the EU. 40-odd percent of the UK’s trade is with the rest of the EU, and about 8 percent of the rest of the EU’s trade is with the UK*. Plus in reputation terms Britain just walking away looks catastrophic to the rest of the world – if the UK leaves talks with the EU in a strop, then will the rest of the world actually really want to deal with it, trust it?
Crashing out of the EU might be an easy sell in the Daily Mail, but it will be a harder sell with Australia’s, New Zealand’s or India’s trade negotiators – countries that all trade more with the EU than they do with the UK, and see the EU as a serious and viable partner, not a crumbling mess as portrayed by UK tabloids. Also notable is that the UK seems to underestimate Juncker and Barnier – they may look dull and grey, and they may not do spin very well, but they definitely do know how to negotiate, a skill that seems lacking among the UK ministers responsible for Brexit.
Essentially the EU position towards the UK has switched since the referendum, but the British, even now, have not understood that. The May-Davis position is based on the idea that EU is going to try to hold the UK close, while the reality is increasingly that the EU is pushing the UK away. The UK left (see e.g. Paul Mason, and the Lewis-Maskell plan) seems equally confused.
To put it another way, rather than trying to douse every fire the UK caused by offering concessions and opt outs, as had been the case throughout more or less the whole of the UK’s membership, the EU’s strategy is now a different one – to build themselves a fire break between the UK and the EU to prevent further states daring to leave, and to protect the EU politically above all else.
This is the context in which Juncker’s dinner with May and Davis should be seen. The UK still assumes it can play the old game, to extract concessions, but after the Brexit referendum its leverage to do that is much reduced. When, I wonder, will that begin to dawn?
* – corrected. Initially it said EU in this sentence twice!