Relying on its veto power in EU councils, Britain was for years able to ignore the politics of both EU member states and of EU institutions.
It will soon come as a shock to British politicians to discover that those countries and those institutions have politics too, and that those politics are unlikely to be overcome by perceived superciliousness.
Britain’s politicians have undergone a crash course in EU affairs over the last few months and many of them have now grasped the difference, for example, between the single market and a customs union. But they are still behind the curve in grasping the psychology of what European integration means for politicians in most member states, and they underrate the role that the
European Parliament will play in the Brexit process.
If Brexit is to be an orderly and friendly process, Britain needs to do what successive governments didn’t bother to do: understand the interests, psychology, and red lines of their negotiating partners. It’s the only way to understand the limit of compromise they are likely to accept for the sake of an amicable relationship with a non-EU Britain.
Above all, it is time to pick apart the phrase ‘what will Brussels wear’, which may have precipitated the recent departure of Britain’s permanent representative to the EU, Sir Ivan Rogers.
‘Brussels won’t wear it’ he is supposed to have warned both David Cameron and Theresa May in response to their bright ideas on how to improve the UK’s EU deal.
To a sceptic minded British politician, the phrase implies something outrageous: that a democratically-elected politician goes to Brussels with a brilliant proposal, or a British diplomat tables a motion in writing, and then a faceless unelected bureaucrat in one of those ugly Brussels buildings says ‘no’ with a French accent.
What the likes of Sir Ivan mean when they say it is more like: in the light of existing treaties, taking into account the current agenda of the Commission, the balance of opinion among member states, and the views of the major factions in the European parliament, the proposal is unlikely to pass.
In fact, Britain’s new deal will be the outcome of the interplay between precisely those players. ‘Brussels’ is made up of several groups and cliques with different interests. For example: EU politicians, the European Parliament, and Central and eastern Europe.
Firstly, EU politicians. Starting with Angela Merkel, EU politicians have become weary of treaty changes for the very good reasons that these have become almost impossible to pass. Precisely because member states – led by Britain – have become more jealous of their remaining areas of sovereignty. Any new treaty will be hostage to referenda, horse trading, and shenanigans on unrelated issues.
But without changing existing treaties, the most pertinent issue for Britain is non-negotiable: no freedom of movement of labour, no membership of the single market.
The Swiss had a referendum on this too, and have been told to stuff it. Perhaps this is why the UK has belatedly ruled out single market membership.
Secondly, the European Parliament. It sees itself not as the expensive talking shop it is regarded as in London, but as the embodiment of the European demos – the true guardian of European values and freedoms. So whereas Britain may get a hearing at the Commission with economic arguments, Parliament will take a constitutional view. And remember, the right to work in one another’s member state is what it means to be an EU citizen. And you can’t argue with that. It is right the UK isn’t wasting its negotiating energy on an issue that cannot be won.
“Britain’s politicians have undergone a crash course in EU affairs over the last few months and many of them have now grasped the difference, for example, between the single market and a customs union. But they are still behind the curve.”
Lastly Central and Eastern Europe. Britain retains much goodwill among these countries, whose accession to the EU Britain championed, and whose workers the UK admitted into the labour force
without exercising a derogation. But their interests have now dramatically diverged.
Central Europe wants big EU budgets and for Britain to make its contributions as long as possible, preferably until 2023, when the last invoices of the British-championed multi-annual EU budget will be paid.
Central Europe also wants the rights of at least its existing residents protected, and is keen on EU’s defence union – both dubious propositions in London. Therefore, expect from Central Europe every sympathy short of support.
There are other groups too, and each one of them is looking for a deal. And the essential weakness of Britain’s negotiating position lies in the fact that continentals get what they need – access to the British market in manufactured goods – under almost every conceivable regime. Low tariffs are the norm, not the exception, whether under World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules or outside them.
Given the number of constituencies in Europe, time, in the short term, works in Britain’s favour. The EU 27 will be loathe to renegotiate the current multi-annual budget, which runs till 2020, meaning that Britain is likely to get an extension to the current deadline of March 2019, if Article 50 is indeed triggered soon.
But beyond that, a trade agreement will take many, many years of work.
As someone who was involved during the Polish presidency of the EU in the negotiations of a deep and comprehensive free trade area with Ukraine – pretty much the same kind of agreement that would suit a post-EU UK – I can promise that completing such an agreement is impossible to manage in two or three years.
If British politicians insist on withdrawing Britain from compliance with previous trade agreements without such an agreement, the Commission will impose automatic sanctions in the relevant areas, just as it would on any other non-member contravening treaties. Only then will the Commission become what British Eurosceptics have believed it has been all along: a heartless leviathan imposing rules on Britain against her will. Only then will Britain learn what it’s like to be negotiating with Brussels as a non-member.
It is very possible that the consensus that emerges from the existing treaties, the position of the Commission, the will of the member states, and the politics of the European Parliament, will be one shockingly far from what Britain expects to get.
When it further emerges that no deal will be possible within years or maybe a decade, the negotiations and the relationship between the UK and the EU may head for a tumultuous collapse.
Britain’s membership will simply lapse and the UK will have its privileged access to the EU market cut off as it ceases budget contributions and laws start to diverge.
As seen from the Continent, some recent pronouncements from London could be read not as manoeuvering for the sake of strengthening one’s position, but as the first inklings of the enormity of what Britain has set out to achieve, and how unlikely she is to get it.
The rhetoric sounds not like a prelude to a tough fight which might end in success, but as the beginning of a blame game for failure. British Eurosceptics are unlikely to say: sorry, we misunderstood the nature, the rules and the politics of the European Union.
By Radek Sikorski