Why Europe's unified front could crumble as Article 50 ticks down

The 27 have stuck together so far—but nothing is guaranteed as we enter the second year of negotiations

March 29, 2018
EU Chief Brexit Negotiator Michel Barnier. Photo: Depo Photos/ABACA/ABACA/PA Images
EU Chief Brexit Negotiator Michel Barnier. Photo: Depo Photos/ABACA/ABACA/PA Images

As we move into the second year of Article 50, it’s useful to consider whether the European Union will be able to maintain the impressive level of coordination and unity that it has displayed to date, for while that has worked so far, we are now entering more difficult terrain.

The reasons for that unity are clear enough.

Firstly, the EU might reasonably be described as a standing negotiation. Member states work in constant interaction with their counterparts and with the union’s own institutions, both on specific pieces of legislation and on more strategic planning. The rules and protocols of such interactions create an environment where the need to create and maintain good working relations across the union is paramount.

Importantly, there is a high degree of awareness and understanding of EU partners’ positions and interests, coupled with a desire to keep a high degree of consensus: a problem for one becomes a problem for all, in many cases.

Secondly, Brexit has challenged some of the core values of the EU, which has in turn triggered a strongly defensive and coordinated response. Not only is a major member leaving the organisation, but its stated desire to secure a preferential future relationship has risked undermining the value of membership for those who remain.

Finally, the confused British approach towards the negotiations—chasing incomplete and somewhat incompatible goals—has made it relatively easy for the EU to secure a number of major concessions so far. From finances to citizens’ rights and the creation of the backstop for the Irish dimension, the most productive route for EU member states looks to be simply to stick together.

But now several clouds loom on the horizon for the prospect of EU unity.

Most obviously, we are now entering the period of tough decisions. While some difficult choices have been made already, the next six months will be even more politically fraught.

The most challenging issue is Ireland. While a backstop option is in place to prevent  a hard border, the British government has indicated that it does not wish to resort to that: whatever plans it might advance in the coming weeks, there is a chance that this might test and weaken EU unity. In particular, if only the Irish issue remains outstanding in October, some other member states might begin to wonder whether it is worth giving quite such weight to what looks like a rather particular situation: why give such prominence to one of the Union’s smaller members?

Add in tough discussions about the role of the European Court of Justice, the protection of citizens’ rights beyond the transition period and a very mixed set of views about particular policy areas—security and defence, fisheries, scientific cooperation—and the scope for individual states to challenge the common line increases markedly.

These issues will become more noticeable as more attention turns to the new relationship. While the EU mandate for negotiating this new relationship was passed without much difficulty, that is only a high-level strategic document, avoiding detail on the specifics. This leaves an opportunity in the period up to March 2019—when the UK leaves the EU—for states to press their preferences on others. This will be much less about existential threats to the EU and much more about narrow economic interests.

All of this might be exacerbated by the aforementioned weakness of the UK. If it continues to articulate incoherent positions, then the incentive and ability of the EU to set terms might make some keener to get their own preferences addressed. The recent Spanish démarche on Gibraltar might be an early example of this.

However, for all these potential problems, it looks very much more than likely that the EU will continue to work as a coherent, unified unit.

All of the factors that have underpinned that unity to date continue to apply. Importantly, there has always been an awareness of internal differences and strong efforts to accommodate and serve those.

Ireland’s case is central once again. The strength and depth of the EU’s commitment to Dublin is grounded in an understanding that this is not simply “an Irish problem,” but a challenge to the integrity of the single market and to the value of European integration in promoting peace. That might sound fatuous to British ears, but it is a view that carries a lot of weight in Brussels and beyond.

More simply, to lose one member state is unfortunate, but to lose another by going so clearly against its interests looks like wilful carelessness, at a time when the EU is trying to rebuild its credibility and legitimacy with its citizens.

And this leads to the final thought: no one wants to crash the Article 50 bus. After all the difficulties of the past year, a lot of progress has been made, as demonstrated by the recent draft Withdrawal Agreement. On the European side, that has been the result of involved, and coordinated, effort, so to be responsible for putting that in jeopardy will carry a lot of political costs for any member state which might decide to break the line.

For now, working together is not only the most productive route, but also the most politic one too.