Brexiteers will be waiting a long time for the EU27 to re-open the withdrawal agreementby Guy de Jonquières / February 4, 2019 / Leave a comment
The conventional wisdom in Westminster and Brussels is that Theresa May is on a hiding to nothing in her efforts to persuade the EU to reopen negotiations on the withdrawal agreement. However, supporters of a hard Brexit insist they know better. All Britain need do, they say, is to keep its nerve and stand its ground because the EU always gives in at the very last minute. As David Davis once put it, “we know from past experience that the EU always leaves agreement to the final moment possible at the 11th hour.”
That claim may rally Brexit true believers and sound comforting to those who have never seen EU negotiators in action. There is just one problem: there is little or no credible historical evidence to support it.
As a journalist who spent four years in Brussels and more than a decade covering world trade policy, I can think of only one instance that suggests the Brexiteers might, just, have a case. That was when the EU belatedly dropped some highly contentious demands at the 2001 WTO ministerial negotiations on the Doha trade round in Cancun, Mexico, in a bid to stop the meeting—and the round—collapsing. Moments afterwards, the meeting collapsed anyway. The round died later.
However, Doha was a multilateral exercise, in which the EU was just one of more than 150 delegations around the table, each with an equal say. The UK withdrawal negotiations involve only two parties. And their dynamics, like those of the EU’s one-to-one trade dealings with third countries, are very different.
In most bilateral negotiations the EU is much the biggest party—as it is in its dealings with Britain. That gives it a natural advantage, especially in trade talks, the one diplomatic arena in which the EU packs a big punch. The sheer size of its market means it is more often sought after as a partner than it is a seeker of deals. Its economic muscle also confers considerable bargaining power.
That does not, of course, mean it always prevails. But when negotiations become bogged down, the EU does not simply give in, because it does not need to: it can afford to sit things out until prospects for agreement improve. EU negotiations with India have dragged on inconclusively for 11 years and those…