London Letter: Post-Brexit UK will find a limited menu at EU table

Despite its confidence, Britain has been warned that it will not be given special preference

Three months on from the referendum, Britain's debate about its post-Brexit relationship with the EU sometimes sounds like a conversation among picky eaters at an expensive restaurant.

Perusing a menu of single market membership, Norwegian, Swiss and Canadian options, free movement of people and a points-based immigration system, the diners are spoilt for choice. Some want to order a la carte. Others are moving between the table d’hote and the main menu, and a few want to order off the menu altogether.

On Thursday, Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi interrupted the British deliberations to inform the diners that their choice was limited to a handful of items on the early bird menu.

“It will be impossible to give to British people more rights than other people outside the EU,” Renzi told the BBC.


This blunt assessment was echoed by Markus Kerber, the head of the BDI, which represents German industry.

Brexiteers have long cited German industry’s interest in maintaining access to the British market in support of their optimism about securing a deal that would allow the UK to avoid trade restrictions with the EU while it imposes limits on immigration.

Short negotiations

“That I think is impossible at the moment,” Kerber said. “So what we think the British government wants, I can tell you straight away is not what the continental Europeans are willing or even able to give, then it will be relatively short negotiations.”

Until now, most of the discussion in Britain has been about the mechanics of invoking article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and the trade-off between single market access and free movement of people. Other policy areas have scarcely featured in the post- referendum debate, notably the future of UK-EU foreign and defence policy co-operation after Brexit.

During the referendum campaign, Brexiteers played down the EU's importance in these policy areas, arguing that Britain's Nato membership and its permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council ensure that it would still have a place at those tables that mattered.

As well, Britain’s long-standing scepticism about EU co-operation on foreign policy and defence has contributed to the lack of any popular anxiety about being shut out of it.

EU consultation of foreign policy has intensified over the years. The 28 foreign ministers now meet once a month, while their ambassadors and officials meet every day in various formations in Brussels. EU ambassadors to non-bloc countries meet once a month, and all 28 member states second diplomats to the European External Action Service, which helps formulate EU foreign policy and represent the European Union abroad.

EU ambassadors to the UN and other international bodies co-ordinate policy positions, and the 28 seek to agree common positions on major foreign policy issues.

In some politically sensitive areas, such as the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, member states often find that a common EU position is a useful cover for taking action that might upset domestic lobby groups.

In a recent article for the Royal United Services Institute defence think tank, Hylke Dijkstra of Maastricht University described what Britain could miss out on after leaving.

Cut out

“The risk of Brexit is that the UK would be completely cut out of these EU foreign policy co-ordination meetings,” he wrote. “This would be a tremendous loss for both the EU and the UK.

“The UK has one of the best diplomatic networks in the world and therefore occupies a privileged position. [Sharing] information and views with the other member states enables the UK to canvass support for its positions, while British diplomats also benefit from hearing what the French, Germans and others have to say on any given topic.”

Shutting Britain out would diminish the impact of the EU's foreign policy, leaving France as the only permanent member of the UN Security Council still within the bloc. And despite its scepticism, Britain has been one of the most effective participants in EU security and defence co-operation.

Dijkstra suggests a compromise should be found to allow Britain to continue to participate in a limited way in EU foreign and defence co-operation. But there is no precedent for including even close non-EU allies, such as Norway.

And, as Renzi suggested, it might be difficult to offer a post-Brexit Britain privileged access that is not afforded to countries such as Norway and Switzerland, or indeed Turkey.