The Start of the Brexit Negotiations

Main Image Credit British Secretary of State for Exiting the EU David Davis gives a press conference with Michel Barnier, chief negotiator for the EU, at the end of a meeting at the EU Commission in Brussels, Belgium, on 19 June 2017. Courtesy of Thierry Monasse/AND/ABACAP

As Britain begins its formal separation negotiations with the EU, RUSI speaks to Dr Bruno Maçães, who served as Portugal’s Secretary of State for European Affairs and has since established a reputation as one of Europe’s most original thinkers. Dr Maçães assesses the strengths and weaknesses of the British position in the Brexit negotiations, but also speculates as to what may happen should there be a change of government in the UK during the negotiations.

Given your experience of EU multilateral talks, do you think that British Prime Minister Theresa May’s failure to secure a parliamentary majority has fundamentally weakened her hand in the Brexit negotiations? 

She was already disliked by the people she will be negotiating with in Europe and that has not changed, but her failure to secure a majority may not be particularly relevant. For the basic fact remains that the UK is in a weak position because of the disparity in size. What I hear from all sides in Brussels is that the EU has very few things it either needs or wants from the UK; when I asked people in the Council Secretariat what the EU wants from Britain, I just drew blank stares. That – not the personality or standing of the prime minister – is the real problem. 

The latest British general election could cut both ways. It could make it more likely that Britain will leave the EU with no deal, since the government may find it impossible to compromise. Or a fresh dose of realism may be injected into the government’s negotiating position, with the prime minister more ready to cooperate with other political parties in order to reach a satisfactory outcome to the negotiations. I am actually inclined towards the second scenario – that the lack of a parliamentary majority for the Conservatives will make things easier for the EU negotiations. 

Do you think that this Brussels perception that the EU needs nothing from the UK is based on an assessment of realities, or is just the result of ignorance? 

A bit of both. To a certain extent, it’s based on realities; you only have to look at the trade figures to see that the percentages of exports to the UK from EU countries are, with one or two exceptions, relatively low, so it would be easy to divert them to other markets should the need arise. But the situation with UK exports to the EU is exactly the opposite. True, there are some concerns about how the economies of the 27 remaining EU member states may be impacted by the potential loss of access to the high-quality service industries in the UK, and especially those based in London. But these are problems whose impact will be measured in years, if not decades, so they are unlikely to preoccupy EU negotiators now.  

The advantages the UK has – such as the status of EU citizens, contributions to Europe’s financial stability, and defence and security matters – are not those which can be easily leveraged or even used as bartering items in Brexit negotiations. And, as so often happens to anyone who negotiates with Brussels, the EU will tend to present its own interests as ‘values’ which are not open to compromise, treating everyone else’s interests as eminently fungible.  

What do you think about the current debate in Britain about the supposed choice between a ‘Hard Brexit’ and a ‘Soft Brexit’? 

This is quite a fake debate, one which probably stems from Theresa May’s failure to explain the reasons which have propelled her to adopt her current negotiating stance with the EU, and has allowed her opponents to brand this as ‘Hard Brexit’ and present it as an ideological choice, or perhaps the outcome of her personal stubbornness. In fact, her position is logical: if you leave the EU you will incur costs which you can only hope to recoup by having the autonomy to pursue your own trade deals and adopt your own legislation. 

Where I think there has been a mistake in the current debate in Britain is the tendency to present matters as a binary choice. It makes more sense to start with something more akin to a ‘Soft Brexit’, in the sense that Britain may leave the EU and stay in the customs union, and perhaps even in the single market, for a period of years, while the UK prepares itself to take advantage of the freedom it acquires once it leaves. But since Britain is unlikely to be able to negotiate new trade deals with countries around the world for years to come, why give up on the benefits of the customs union if the UK will not reap the benefits of new arrangements for quite some time?

And the same argument applies to the single market: Britain continues to pay into it and won’t be able to change the UK regulatory landscape for at least a few years, so why upend existing arrangements? It will make sense to stay in the single market for, perhaps, three to five years. In essence, therefore, ‘Hard Brexit’ makes sense for the UK in the long-run, but ‘Soft Brexit’ makes sense for Britain in the short-run.  

You recently speculated about what could happen should Britain be forced into a new general election, which is then won by the Labour party. You suggested that, under such circumstances, Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister would benefit from a continental-wide socialist solidarity. Can you explain? 

If Jeremy Corbyn took over the Brexit negotiations some serious dilemmas would be faced by Brussels. So far, the Brexit phenomenon has been presented as a showdown between politicians who believe in Europe and who defend the European spirit and future, and a small group of nostalgic British Conservatives who are thinking back to imperial Britain. This is clearly an unfair description of the reality, but it’s how things are seen in many places in Europe.

If this changes, and if the man leading Britain belongs to the political left, then this would be seen as a return to the discussion we had in the past, of whether it is possible to have ‘progressive politics’ within the EU, and that was a discussion which threatened to tear the EU apart. The tables will, therefore, be turned: it would be the EU which would be presented as a conservative force, preventing a ‘progressive’ movement in Britain from taking root, just as happened in Italy, Greece and France. There would be a lot of solidarity with a Corbyn-led Britain from southern Europe in particular, especially if Corbyn were to be seen to be ‘charting new territory’ by building a new ‘progressive’ discourse for the twenty-first century. So, imposing onerous terms on Britain in such a case would be very difficult for many EU leaders. Admittedly, this is a highly speculative scenario.  

Back to today’s realities, and to a key technical point. Is it wise for a British prime minister to take day-to-day control of the Brexit negotiations?  

Theresa May should not manage the discussions on a daily basis. She has to use all levers of power, from lower-rung officials, to sherpas and right up to various Cabinet ministers, with the prime minister being kept in reserve, ready to intervene at crucial moments to unblock difficulties. It is also an essential element in such negotiations that Britain’s partners should never be sure of what the British head of government thinks about any contentious issue under negotiations, so there is room for changing stances, if that becomes necessary. 

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