Article 50 is months from being triggered, and we are none the wiser as to the UK government’s negotiating position. Theresa May’s cards are close to her chest, and thus far only the Supreme Court has been able to grant us the promise of a peek. However, will our European partners bring the same coy bravado to the table once negotiations kick off in the spring? After all, it takes two to tango.
The European Commission is the designated negotiator for the EU and will be led by former French Minister Michel Barnier, and Commission President Jean-Claude Junker. The Commission’s main agenda will almost certainly be to make an example out of the UK in order to dis-incentivise further national exits. The UK cannot be seen to retain all of the benefits of membership without any costs, including free movement of people, or else full membership of the European project becomes redundant. The Commission is the traditional motor for European integration and will in all likelihood prioritise the survival of the EU above the UK’s wellbeing.
This punishment will take place in the context of a surging far-right movement sweeping across Europe. From France to the Netherlands, to Poland, Austria and Hungary, populism and nationalism have united under the banner of Eurosceptic. In the short term, a punishing Brexit can demonstrate to European voters that populism has consequences. In the long term, the EU must use Brexit to kickstart reforms which tackle disaffection and empower the commoner, to extinguish the populist flame.
Power will be exercised on a national basis as well as by the Commission. There are a number of national agendas which will condition the EU’s negotiating stance. French Presidential and German Federal elections will take place in 2017. Both countries’ establishments will be warding off Euroscpetic challenger parties – namely the Front National and Alternative für Deutschland – both of which advocate withdrawal from the EU. Expect to hear more about Frexits and Gexits this year. Also at play will be the Spanish veto over any deal which offers Scotland privileged access, an attempt to discredit independence movements in Catalonia and Basque country. The Republic of Ireland will seek to preserve the peace process through maintaining the soft border with Northern Ireland, while the Baltic States may look to counter a resurgent Russia by preserving British heft in European defence and security programs.
There is clearly a confusing soup of agendas on the other side of the table. Britain may well emerge as the more united party. What will become eminently clear is that we never fully appreciated British influence in the EU. Britain was never subjected to benign dictats from distant bureaucrats. Britain led EU policy, Britain was EU policy. Starting with Article 50 negotiations, EU policy will take a decisively different direction, which will exploited by Eurosceptics as vindication of the vote to Leave. We will have to adjust quickly to life on the outside of the club, and work hard to marry British interests to these disparate agendas of our continental neighbours