OPN Boris Johnson signing Brexit agreement-1580031297838
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson signing the Brexit agreement on January 24. Image Credit:

Boris Johnson asserted Friday that the “Brexit finish line” has been crossed with Parliament passing legislation implementing the nation’s EU withdrawal this week. Yet, while this historic moment looms large, this is not the endgame of Brexit, but the start of a new phase of negotiations that will see an increase, not decrease, in UK-EU negotiating activity.

In what yet could be the most challenging peacetime dialogue ever undertaken by the parties, debates move from the three core debates since the 2016 referendum — the Irish border, citizen rights, and the UK’s financial ‘divorce settlement’ from the EU — to a much broader range of stage two topics from transport and fisheries to financial services and data transfer. Collectively, this represents a new order of complexity, and the troubled debates over the withdrawal deal will help set the tone.

The stakes in play are huge as both sides seek a new constructive partnership that can hopefully bring significant benefits for both at a time of global geopolitical turbulence.

- Andrew Hammond

One of the most striking features of the Article 50 period since 2017 is that the governments of Theresa May and Boris Johnson were often on the back-foot vis-a-vis Brussels with many previous UK negotiating ‘red lines’ shredded. The fortitude of Brussels surprised many in the UK thanks to common misperceptions of the ‘chaos’ of the EU political process. The reasons for the resolve of the EU-27 reflects at least three issues.

Firstly, once May triggered Article 50 in 2017 — prematurely so given the absence of any UK negotiating strategy on Brexit — the initiative was handed over to the EU-27. This is because under Article 50 it was for Brussels alone, not the United Kingdom, to decide whether “sufficient progress” was made in the first phase divorce talks to justify moving to the next stage, underlining the bloc’s position as judge and jury.

Political vandalism

Another reason for Europe’s relative unity over Brexit is that key leaders, including Emmanuel Macron, regard the UK’s exit as an act of political vandalism to the continent. The tough approach agreed by the EU-27 therefore reflects an overall belief that the 2016 referendum should not become an existential threat to the future of the Brussels-based club given risk of political contagion spreading to other member states where Euroscepticism is growing if the UK were perceived to be given an easy ride in negotiations.

In this context, any UK government would have had a difficult hand to play in the Article 50 talks. However, what has made a bad situation immeasurably worse was the political weakness of May and the shambles of the UK’s negotiating position. The division and occasional incompetence was remarkable with public infighting in the Cabinet sending signals that its Brexit plans were in disarray, and that it had still not reconciled many key negotiating ‘trade-offs’ by apparently wanting close, favourable ties without the costs.

While London has shown failures of imagination with Brexit, this is also true of Brussels too which — if even a minimalist deal is to be agreed this year — will need greater political and intellectual flexibility. Brussels has struggled to define what Brexit should mean, partly because this forms part of wider, difficult questions around where the EU is headed. Of course, Brussels has offered up numerous opportunities over the last few years to Britain, but there could have been greater willingness to think beyond ‘off-the-shelf’, standard options for what a close, future partnership could mean.

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Yet, many across the continent have being concerned about the threat to the EU of a potentially successful — or at least the appearance of a successful — Brexit in coming years, and understandably do not want to be seen to shift positions fundamentally solely because of pressures from London. Yet, now a UK withdrawal agreement is agreed, there is growing requirement for the EU-27 to think more ‘out of the box’.

For instance, in what has been an inherently political negotiation over the withdrawal deal, the EU was sometimes too legalistic and doctrinaire with the process in a way that would have made it hard for any UK government to deliver. For instance, the withdrawal deal, and the separate one to set up a new relationship, are exceptionally hard to undertake entirely in isolation, as the Northern Irish border issue has underlined.

Lack of imagination by Brussels in Brexit talks stems, in part, from initial complacency in some EU quarters over concerns UK voters expressed in the referendum which may have been dismissed too easily as British exceptionalism. However, even Macron admitted in 2018 that his country might vote for ‘Frexit’ if a similar referendum were held in his country.

Challenges facing the EU

Moreover, some EU-27 decision makers, although initially concerned that Brexit could lead to a domino effect across the continent, have perhaps even come to see the UK’s departure as a ‘problem’ that may even be positive for the EU. In part, this stems from a long-held perception in parts of the EU that further integration tends to only happen through crises. Yet, this has potentially risked underplaying the scale of the challenges facing the bloc, of which Brexit is just one.

2020 is therefore the time for Brussels, not just London, to redouble Brexit diplomacy to help ensure that a disorderly exit doesn’t come to pass. The stakes in play are huge as both sides seek a new constructive partnership that can hopefully bring significant benefits for both at a time of global geopolitical turbulence.

— Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.

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