Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico laid down a challenge for the EU last week. He announced that Slovakia – along with Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic – could veto a potential Brexit deal.
The UK’s “leave” vote was motivated to some degree by the desire to control migration. At the same time, many government officials and international businesses want to see the UK maintain its access to the single EU market.
Prime Minister Fico and leaders of other Central European states are concerned that Britain’s exit strategy may negatively affect their citizens. The combination of restricted migration and the single market for goods would curtail the exchange of goods between the UK and Central Europe. In a sense, the “product” exported by Central European states is cheap labor, which can only be shared if free movement of people continues.
“Free movement is the only way that most such services – in construction, retail, and so forth – can be traded, as construction workers and baristas cannot provide their services remotely,” John Springford, senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform, wrote in a report.
The free movement of people is particularly important to Poland. About 831,000 UK residents were born in Poland, making it the most common non-UK country of birth in 2015. Many of these residents work in service industries.
It is as yet unclear whether those EU migrants already living and working in the UK will be allowed to stay, prompting a push for UK citizenship by nationals of some European states.
According to Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which reformed the two treaties that established the European Union, any country that wishes to leave the EU needs to negotiate a withdrawal deal, agreed to by a “qualified majority” of European states and the European Parliament.
In this case, at least 72 percent of remaining member states, representing at least 65 percent of the EU population, must vote in favor of the agreement. Any member state can also veto during the negotiating process. As Andrew Duff, a former Liberal Democrat Member of the European Parliament, put it, “The clause puts most of the cards in the hands of those that stay in.”
Nothing can happen until the UK formally triggers Article 50, beginning a two-year countdown to reach a deal. (This event has been slated for the beginning of 2017, although some sources indicate it may be pushed back). After that happens, how likely is it that EU member states would veto the exit agreement?
To this point, EU members have been divided over how to treat the UK. Sweden’s EU Minister Ann Linde told Bloomberg that she hoped for “some kinds of compromises on both sides.” At the same time, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has made it clear that Britain cannot expect free movement of goods without free movement of people. A senior EU official expressed concern about this division in the face of Britain’s diplomatic strength, telling Reuters, “If we don’t stick together, [the UK will] eat us alive.”
Statistically speaking, the 27 remaining countries have a population of 444.7 million. The four countries that have so far committed to veto a deal that separates freedom of movement from freedom of trade comprise 64 million people, or 14.3 percent of the total EU population. A veto would take 35 percent of the EU population, or 91.6 million more people, a number that begins to look feasible if Germany, Italy, France or Spain signs on to the veto agreement. Both Germany and France have described the free movement of people as non-negotiable.
It therefore seems unlikely that Britain’s prime minister will be able to achieve the deal she hopes for. Theresa May told reporters at the UN General Assembly, “The 27 will sign up to a deal with us.” She wants the UK to “be a global leader in free trade,” while simultaneously restricting migration from the EU.
What would happen if EU member states vetoed the exit agreement Mrs. May seeks? For some inside Britain, this would be a welcome step — they argue that access to the single market is not only unrealistic, but also undesirable. Former Chancellor of the Exchequer Nigel Lawson wrote in Newsweek that, “We cannot accept freedom of movement of people. Freedom of movement is an integral part of the single-market theology, so we will not be in the single market.” Brexit ministers Liam Fox, David Davis and Boris Johnson want to see a “clean break” with the EU, an official told the Financial Times on Sunday.
Others advocate for a “soft Brexit” that would allow for some migration in exchange for keeping access to the single market. Conservative MP Andrew Tyrie, Chair of the House of Commons Treasury Select Committee, wrote a paper declaring that, “The four freedoms of the single market are not inviolable and inextricably interdependent.”
Mr Tyrie believes it should be possible to balance the two ideas, preventing unnecessarily harsh economic impacts in UK firms. Almost 5,500 UK companies rely on corporate “passports” to gain business access across the EU – passports that would likely be revoked if the UK were no longer part of the single market. Financial firms and others, including telecom giant Vodafone, are looking at relocating from the UK to stay within the Eurozone, as The Christian Science Monitor reported in June.
If an agreement takes longer than two years from the point at which Article 50 is officially triggered, the UK could cease being part of the EU without any new agreements being made. For Central European leaders, the hope is that a veto will allow them to influence the trajectory of Brexit talks – and ideally push for freer movement of people – before that happens.
“Each member state will be able to veto any part of the negotiation mandate to make sure the mandate respects the interests of all EU members,” Czech State Secretary for EU Affairs Tomas Prouza told Bloomberg.
[Editor's note: The original story incorrectly stated the EU population without the UK.]