What are the 27's priorities in the talks that start today?
What does the EU want from the Brexit talks? Britain’s position has been analysed and debated in depth for months. Yet the EU view has not been the subject of much scrutiny.
If the EU position on the negotiations had been the exposed to critical analysis then its gaps, ambiguities and contradictions would be better known. We would be more prepared for the difficult times ahead.
We might also begin to question whether the framing of the talks as an adversarial contest is the best approach to reaching agreement. A focus on the start of a new relationship might be better than all the talk of a divorce.
A key principle for the EU27 is to maintain their unity through the process. They also promise transparency, but the two are not compatible. Differences of view between and within the 27 states are worked out in private. We are allowed to know the agreed line but not the process that by which it was reached. We do not know the compromises or deals done to arrive at a unified position.
The EU negotiation Guidelines agreed on 29 April is the product of negotiation between the 27. The odd logic of this document can be explained by the fact that it arose from a process of bargaining between different priorities and interests.
The guidelines demand a phased approach to negotiation but omit any rationale for the proposed sequencing of the talks. In speeches Michel Barnier, the EU’s negotiator, has suggested that the talks will build confidence by first tackling the difficult issues like the financial settlement. We must suppose that trust built up in the more fraught negotiations will facilitate agreement on the easier subjects.
What objective criterion can be used to allocate the various issues to each phase? The guidelines propose that questions arising from withdrawal are covered first and once progress has been made the issues related to Britain’s future relationship are introduced in the second stage.
The withdrawal issues include the rights of EU citizens living in Britain and vice versa, avoiding a legal vacuum for business, a financial settlement, the Irish border, Britain’s obligations under EU agreements with third countries and international bodies and issues arising in justice, home affairs and security.
The inclusion of the UK border with the Republic of Ireland in phase one contradicts the logic of keeping future relationship issues to phase two. Why we might ask are customs posts between Armagh and Louth in phase one but customs posts at Dover/Calais reserved for later?
The answer is obvious and obviously political — preserving the peace process. While the priority given to the border is understandable, it is tempting to conclude that the sequencing is really intended to allow the 27 to have their priority issues discussed first.
We Don’t Know
While Britain debates the merits of the customs union and the single market do we know that we would be welcome in either? Wolfgang Münchau in the Financial Times thinks not, arguing that ‘the EU favours a Brexit with no single market and customs union membership, because it makes a difficult negotiating process easier.’
In fact, we don’t know. The desire for unity among the 27 means that these questions are not discussed in public and, if they have been discussed at all, we can only be told when there is an agreed line.
We may assume that there are differences between European politicians. Some take a hard line believing that Britain must pay a price for leaving. The agreed position is that there is no desire to punish Britain. Some have argued that Britain should not have a better deal outside the EU than it had as a member while most think that anything short of membership carries its own cost. Others may have particular economic interests while some may prioritise security questions and note that Britain has troops stationed on the territory of some allies who share a border with Russia.
In contrast to the UK where every possible option has been debated to death, we know very little about who thinks what and who are the influential players on the EU side.
One element the EU position has in common with the UK’s is that both sides seem to be preparing an adversarial approach to talks. Negotiations begin to look like a contest where each side seeks an advantage over the other and one side’s gain is the other side’s loss.
An alternative view would start from an understanding that the UK and the countries of Europe are allies in a dangerous world. There are few countries in the world which share the vales of the British people as closely as the members of the EU. Europe is the global region where not just democracy and the rule of law but also the values of solidarity and protection of the weakest are most deeply entrenched. Our interests converge far more than they diverge.
There must be a better way, one that sees Brexit as a process to be managed with the least disruption to the security, wellbeing and prosperity of all Europeans. There should also be a common interest in reaching agreement that preserves cooperation while allowing each side to develop in different directions.
We need an approach which makes the start of a new relationship more important than the ending of the old.
Jos Gallacher lives in Brussels and currently represents Labour International on Labour’s National Policy Forum.