On 29th March 2017, following a vote to Leave the European Union, the United Kingdom triggered Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, notifying the EU of its wish to leave the bloc.
The UK’s Article 50 notification letter set out the initial negotiating position of the UK, which repeatedly expressed a desire for “a deep and special partnership” between the UK and the EU. The UK set out its position by proposing an “ambitious Free Trade Agreement”, accompanied with “economic and security cooperation”, and repeatedly stated that it wished for the UK and EU to prosper together, bound by a special partnership.
The EU responded not with equal goodwill, but sought to instead dominate talks. It immediately made demands for money and flatly refused to talk about trade, whilst simultaneously creating proposals which would break up the UK and trap it within the EU’s sphere of influence. Throughout the negotiations the EU would deliberately try to bog down negotiations through one-sided and extortionate demands, believing that a long delay and the prospect of a bad deal would force the British to change their mind and remain in the union.
So how exactly did this happen?
“Together, I know we are capable of reaching an agreement about the UK’s rights and obligations as a departing member state, while establishing a deep and special partnership that contributes towards the prosperity, security and global power of our continent.”
— An except from the UK’s A50 notification letter to Donald Tusk (the EU Council President).
Before triggering Article 50, the UK had set out its position and offered several ‘olive branches’ to the European Union.
On 17th January 2017, Theresa May delivered the Lancaster House speech, reaffirming her ambitions to build a “Global Britain”. The UK ruled out membership of the Single Market, saying it respected the EU’s stance that the “four freedoms” were indivisible. It also ruled out membership of the Customs Union, saying it would instead seek free trade agreements with the EU and countries around the world. The UK also expressed its desire to guarantee the rights of EU nationals in the UK as soon as practically possible, as well as the rights of UK citizens in the EU. These objectives were put into a White Paper published on 2nd February.
On 29th April 2017, the EU Council (made up of the 27 leaders of the other EU member states) agreed the bloc’s guidelines for the upcoming negotiations. The tone could not have been more different to the one struck by the UK.
The EU’s first act was to seize control of the agenda of negotiations, by splitting the negotiation into two phases (which Barnier referred to as “sequencing”). Whilst the UK wanted to discuss free and open trade to enable mutual prosperity, the EU simply refused to talk about the future trading relationship until it had achieved what it saw as three crucial issues. This included the UK settling what the EU viewed as the United Kingdom’s “obligations” in terms of financial settlement, a solution to the only land border between the UK and the EU in Northern Ireland, and guarantees for EU citizens living in the UK.
“The European Council will monitor progress closely and determine when sufficient progress has been achieved to allow negotiations to proceed to the next phase.”
— Except from the EU’s agreed negotiating strategy, published on 29th April 2017.
Over the following months, the EU negotiators made extortionate demands for money. These demands, known as the “divorce bill” made up a large part of the early negotiations. Initially, the EU Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, as well as the then new President of the EU Parliament, Antonio Tajani, claimed that the UK would have to pay up to €60bn. By May 2017, this had increased to €100bn. It wasn’t until December 2017 until the UK and EU agreed a divorce bill of £39bn.
Along with the divorce bill, the UK and the EU concluded an agreement regarding citizens rights, and also reached a political agreement pledging that there would be no hard border in Ireland. The UK’s position from the beginning was that the border issue would be sorted with technological solutions (including automated registered exporter systems already in use by the EU) in the context of an overall trade deal, however as the EU was refusing to talk about trade, this option was not fully explored.
At the start of 2018, despite the remaining minor sticking points, the EU indicated that it may be willing to start discussing trade for the first time. However by February 2018, attention had turned to negotiating a “transition period”, and talks about trade had been delayed again. The EU set out incredibly bad terms for the transition period, demanding that the UK be bound by EU rules, continuing to be part of the Single Market and Customs Union and unable to negotiate its own free trade agreements, whilst at the same time giving up all its voting rights and involvement in EU decision making.
“During the transition period, the UK will remain bound by the obligations stemming from the agreements concluded by the EU, while it will no longer participate in any bodies set up by those agreements…
…The UK, as already a third country, will no longer participate in the institutions and the decision-making of the EU.”
— Excerpt from the EU’s negotiating directives on the transition period
The EU agreed to a transition period of 21 months. This allowed it to keep the UK within its sphere of influence beyond the exit date, and also allowed extra time in which a possible second referendum could allow the UK to rejoin the EU.
Under the guise of the transition period, the EU unveiled the “backstop solution” as a way to guarantee regulatory alignment across the Northern Ireland border. The EU proposed that Northern Ireland would join the EU’s customs territory and follow some EU Single Market rules. Although this would prevent a hard border in Ireland, it was effectively drawing a Customs border down the Irish Sea, meaning customs checks would be required between the UK and Northern Ireland.
This quite astonishing protocol revealed that the EU’s was attempting to carve open the UK open into two separate customs territories. It was in effect, an attempt to split the nation. In addition to that, the UK did not have the power to unilaterally exit the backstop, meaning that it was trapped in it until a future agreement was agreed. At the UK’s insistence, the backstop was altered so that the whole of the UK would be included in a Customs Union with the EU, instead of just Northern Ireland. The EU firmly rejected any suggestion that the backstop be time-limited.
The EU’s attempt to seize customs authority over a portion of UK territory, and the refusal to make the backstop time-limited, proved that the EU was not negotiating in good faith. Both sides had also promised that they would not build a hard border, making the backstop completely obsolete. The EU continued to claim that the backstop was the only solution to the Irish border, which was untrue – the UK had wanted a free trade agreement and mutual recognition of standards to resolve the problem. The EU however was wary of being out-competed by the UK, and was determined to lock the UK into its sphere of influence.
In September 2018, Theresa May attended an EU summit in Salzburg to try and push the economic blueprint outlined in her Chequers proposal. Instead of the expected negotiation and deliberation, the Prime Minister was flatly rebuffed. No alternative solutions were offered, and the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, took to social media to openly mock the Prime Minister.
A post from Donald Tusk (EU Council President) on Instagram, openly mocking Theresa May.
Theresa May responded with a press conference, in which she insisted that she had always treated the EU with respect, and demanded they reciprocate. However the mask had slipped. The contempt shown by EU politicians towards British negotiators was now clear for all to see. Crucially, the EU was by now aware that the UK government was not willing to leave the bloc without a deal, and it therefore had no incentive to acknowledge the UK’s requests to improve the draft agreement.In November 2018, the full Withdrawal Agreement was published, along with a non-binding political declaration, outlining the future trade relationship. It became immediately obvious that the EU had achieved everything it had wanted from the Withdrawal Agreement. The deal secured money for the EU, whilst trapping the whole UK in a shared customs territory, preventing it from out-competing the EU. The UK had received market access during a transition period and a halt to freedom of movement, but had not even received any legally binding commitments on a free trade agreement.Yanis Varoufakis summed up the state of affairs on Question Time in March 2019, remarking that the deal was “a deal a nation signs only after having been defeated at war”. Many British politicians agreed that it was a bad deal, and Parliament went on to vote against its ratification three times.
Despite the deadlock in Parliament, the EU refused to reopen negotiations on the agreement. Despite promises from all sides to avoid a hard Irish border, it again refused to make the backstop time-limited, which likely would’ve secured its passage through the House of Commons. The EU demonstrated that it was more likely to entertain a no-deal scenario, rather then seek a good trading relationship with a fully independent UK.
Throughout Spring 2019, the EU hardened its position, saying that it was not interested in free trade or trade discussions, even after a no-deal Brexit, until the UK had surrendered to all its demands. The EU made it clear that it was not interested in considering a trade and standards recognition solution to the Northern Ireland border.
“I have said before the backstop is currently the only solution we have found to maintain the status quo on the island of Ireland.
If the UK were to leave the EU without a deal, let me be very, very clear. We would not discuss anything with the UK until there is an agreement for Ireland and Northern Ireland, as well as for citizens’ rights and the financial settlement.”
— Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, speaking in Dublin in April 2019
Throughout the negotiations, the EU has not acted as a friendly neighbour, but as a hostile power. It has weaponised the Irish border to try and split up the UK into separate customs territories (despite commitments from all sides to keep the border open, negating the need for a backstop in the first place), whilst drawing out the negotiations and the transition period to pressure the UK government to hold another referendum. At no point has it entertained an open, constructive relationship with a fully independent UK.
The attitude of the EU towards the UK and the negotiations were aptly summed up by comments given by the staffers of Guy Verhofstadt, Chair of the Brexit Steering Group (the group responsible for representing the European Parliament in the negotiations):
“We finally turned them into a colony… and that was our plan from the first moment.”
This post was originally published by the author on his personal blog: https://joelrwrites.wordpress.com/2019/05/22/the-eu-has-negotiated-brexit-like-a-hostile-foreign-power/