EU has little room for manoeuvre in Brexit talks

Written by Jo Leinen on 16 October 2018

Photo credit: Press Association

The EU’s margin for flexibility is limited in Brexit negotiations, and the sooner the UK accepts this the sooner a deal can be reached, writes S&D group MEP Jo Leinen.

It was only this July that for the first time, more than two years after the Brexit referendum, British Prime Minister Theresa May presented a more detailed vision on the future relationship between the UK and the EU-27 after Brexit and the end of the already-agreed transition period on 31 December 2020.

Negotiations could therefore move on from “divorce questions” about payments and citizens’ rights to the more complicated matter of forging a durable economic and security partnership to the benefit of both partners, which is also a pre-condition for solving the Irish border question.

The UK government’s white paper envisions an association agreement with the EU, which includes a free trade area limited to goods, a dispute resolution mechanism and a continuous dialogue between the two partners.

The question is whether this plan can form a basis on which an agreement can be found that allows trade to flow as smoothly as possible.

In order to avoid a cliff-edge no-deal scenario, many commentators, especially in the UK, are demanding a more ‘flexible approach’ from Brussels.

"It is high time that this basic asymmetry of the negotiations is accepted in the UK"


There should be no doubt that the EU would like to see the UK staying as close as possible to the Union it is still part of and indeed, the EU has a variety of different arrangements with third countries, with different degrees of trade liberalisation and different institutional frameworks.

However, the EU’s margin for manoeuvre and thus any potential flexibility, are limited by its own principles, its economic interest, and its raison d'être.

A non-starter is the proposed “new Facilitated Customs Arrangement” that, according to the UK white paper, “would remove the need for customs checks and controls between the UK and the EU as if they were a combined customs territory, which would enable the UK to control its own tariffs for trade with the rest of the world and ensure businesses paid the correct tariff or no tariff”.

In theory, border customs checks would then not only be unnecessary between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, but also between the UK and the EU as a whole.

It seems bold, perhaps even naïve, to demand that for the UK to be able to “take back control” and negotiate its own trade deals, the EU shall give up control over its own custom checks and outsource it to a third country.

For the time being, the so-called backstop agreed in December 2017 remains the only viable option: Northern Ireland stays in the EU customs union, which would most likely result in regulatory divergence between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

"There must be no doubt that any country outside of the EU cannot have the same advantages as an EU member state or even a special status such as the one the UK enjoys at the moment"


The main hurdle for a solution is that large parts of the political establishment and the public in the UK seem to think that the EU-27 and the UK are equal in the negotiations, while in fact they are not.

Firstly, the UK has a unique and special status within the EU. It is not part of Schengen, it stayed out of the common security and defence policy, opted out of the common migration policy, does not have to join the Euro, and can even decide to participate in justice and home affairs measures on a case-by-case basis.

The rebate on British payments to the EU budget, which saved the country almost €130 billion, is just the tip of the iceberg. It was the UK that decided to give up this position - something neither the EU nor its 27 member states ever wanted.

In fact, Brexit could still be called off in a heartbeat, if the British citizens decided to do so.

In international negotiations, size matters. This is why European countries face their negotiation counterparts united. To stay united, however, there must be no doubt that any country outside of the EU cannot have the same advantages as an EU member state or even a special status such as the one the UK enjoys at the moment.

In his quest for a “better deal” in the run-up to the referendum, David Cameron had to learn the hard way that - while the EU had every reason to keep the UK in the Union - the EU’s flexibility has natural limits, where the integrity of the single market or its political unity and thus its own future are at stake.

There is no reason to believe that Theresa May could broker a better deal for a third country than Cameron was able to secure for an EU Member State.

It is high time that this basic asymmetry of the negotiations is accepted in the UK.

Otherwise, it will be virtually impossible to reach a basic agreement on the future relationship in time for this week’s EU summit in Brussels.

About the author

Jo Leinen is a German S&D group MEP and a member of the constitutional affairs committee

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