On the morning of June 24th, 2016, there were many in Brussels and other EU capitals who thought the Brexit vote might be the straw that broke the camel’s back, the event that would, domino-like, lead to the disintegration of the union. In fact, the EU has had a good Brexit so far.
Not everybody agrees. Sir Ivan Rogers, former UK permanent representative to Brussels, the most acute observer of the Brexit process in the UK and one of the most knowledgeable officials on how the EU functions, is highly critical of the UK’s management of Brexit negotiations, but has also taken issue with the EU’s approach.
At an event hosted in London by the Institute of Government, Sir Ivan claimed the EU adopted a technocratic, process-driven approach from the outset managed by Brussels theologians and did not think strategically about the future relationship with the UK. Essentially Sir Ivan portrayed a union driven by tactics rather than strategy. A position he is not alone in holding.
In fact the EU has been both tactical and strategic.
It is far more like a state than a souped-up regional UN. The EU has hard power and deploys it to pursue its interests and safeguard itself when faced with an existential threat
Once the Leave side won the referendum, the remaining 27 states and the EU institutions pursued three strategic goals, all related to protecting the EU as a polity or political community.
The dominant power
The first was to demonstrate the centrality of the EU in governing transnational relations in Europe. This was particularly important given the depiction of the EU during the UK referendum as weak and on the verge of collapse.
In reality, the EU is the dominant power in Europe and no state can escape its power and reach.
European non-member states, including the departing UK, must reach an accommodation with the union. Hence, the Brexit process unfolds on the union’s terms.
This was demonstrated over and over again in the negotiations, notably by the insistence that there would be no negotiation without notification and that the negotiations would be phased, beginning with the withdrawal agreement. It was in evidence yesterday when EU Brexit negotiators rejected Britain’s latest proposals on the backstop and told the UK’s attorney general to come back with a reworked version.
London would have expected to outgun Ireland in the negotiations. For the EU, however, a key goal was to demonstrate that it will protect its members
The second strategic goal was that membership must matter. Demonstrating the difference between being in the club and outside was essential. Put simply, there could be no privileged status for a former member state.
This goal was systemic but reinforced by the apparent unwillingness of many in the UK to come to terms with what third-country status might mean. Far too many in positions of influence in London felt the UK could retain those policies and institutional privileges it liked and jettison what it did not want, the “cherry-picking” or “cake-and-eat-it approach” to exiting the union.
Membership must matter
The union’s commitment to ensuring that membership must matter also fed into the treatment of the Irish Border in the negotiations. Going into these negotiations, London would have comfortably expected to outgun Ireland in the negotiations given the asymmetry in size. For the EU, however, a key goal was to demonstrate that it will protect its members and will not privilege the interests of a departing state over a member state. This was not the only reason for solidarity with Ireland but it was part of the motivation.
The EU’s third strategic goal was to safeguard the union as a rules-based system held together by treaties, laws and institutions. Across all EU institutions, Brexit was insulated from the day-to-day functioning of the union with task forces in the council and commission and a Brexit steering group in the European Parliament. The withdrawal of the UK was not going to permeate everything the EU was doing.
These strategic goals will continue to mould the EU’s future relationship with the UK. The EU wants to have a close and sustainable relationship with the UK as a valued neighbour but that relationship will never have a higher priority than the three strategic goals identified here.
There have been many problems with the UK's approach to its exit from the EU but underlying all of the political machinations is a deep, conceptual failure
UK interests will be accommodated to the extent possible but will never be prioritised above the collective interest of the EU itself.
The European response to the UK’s exit is very revealing about the nature of the union at it approaches the third decade of the 21st century. It is a political community with some state-like characteristics not just an arena for transacting business, although it is a formidable negotiating machine.
It is far more like a state than a souped-up regional UN. The EU has hard power and deploys that power to pursue its interests and safeguard itself when faced with an existential threat.
There have been many problems with the UK’s approach to its exit from the EU but underlying all of the political machinations is a deep, conceptual failure. Notwithstanding 45 years of membership, the UK’s political elite never really understood the EU and even the most knowledgeable and experienced never appreciated the fact that it was a political community, however distinctive.
Although the UK was a major player in the union, it leaves without ever fully understanding what it was a part of.
Brigid Laffan is director of the Robert Schuman centre for advanced studies at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy