The EU stuck together on Brexit. Can it remain united on future issues?

Why We Wrote This

The European Union can be an unruly bloc where diverse agendas make consensus challenging. But facing existential threat in Brexit, the member states stood as one throughout negotiations.

Ludovic Marin/Reuters
German Chancellor Angela Merkel (r.) and French President Emmanuel Macron speak as they arrive for an informal meeting of European Union leaders in Sibiu, Romania, on May 9.

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Twenty-seven leaders of the European Union were in Romania this week, where they pledged to “always stand together.” In the face of the myriad issues that currently divide the bloc, that is an extremely ambitious goal. But when it came to negotiating the terms of Brexit, Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, the other 27 member states (EU27) have stood shoulder to shoulder for three years. Could that success be used to find solidarity on other key issues?

It may be challenging because of how unique Brexit is. EU policy negotiations are generally roundtable affairs at which each member state defends its interests before compromises with which everyone can agree are generally hammered out. Brexit was not like that. Those talks pitted the United Kingdom against the 27 remaining EU states. And all 27 were in agreement on the issues at stake in the “divorce” agreement governing London’s withdrawal.

But some remain hopeful that “There will be a Brexit dividend in terms of unity among the 27,” says one Brussels diplomat. “That’s what the EU is asking of itself: Let’s use this unity in other places too.”

When European Union leaders issued their blueprint for the future at a summit in Romania this week, they made their priorities plain.

“We will stay united, through thick and thin,” the 27 heads of government present pledged in the second of their 10 commitments, promising to “always stand together.”

In the face of the myriad issues that currently divide the EU, ranging from how to deal with the United States and China to the way in which the bloc should treat migrants, that is an extremely ambitious goal.

But on one critical challenge the EU has fulfilled its ambition: When it came to negotiating the terms of Brexit, Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, the other 27 member states (EU27) have stood shoulder to shoulder for three years.

Many in London had expected to be able to take advantage of European divisions to extract concessions from Brussels. It didn't work out like that. While British Prime Minister Theresa May is still struggling to win Parliament’s approval for the agreement, the EU got exactly the deal it wanted.

This raises a question: Could that success be used to find solidarity on other key issues?

The peculiarities of Brexit

“That’s what the EU is asking of itself: Let’s use this unity in other places too,” says one Brussels diplomat, who asked that her name not be used because she was not authorized to speak on the subject. And she is tempted to be hopeful. “There will be a Brexit dividend in terms of unity among the 27.”

Others, like Pierre Vimont, a former deputy chief of the EU diplomatic service, are more dubious. “Brexit was seen as an existential threat” to the EU, much graver than the routine differences of opinion that the union often wrestles with, he says. “It was the shock that persuaded all 27 that this time they needed to get their act together.”

“You can’t compare the Brexit negotiations with talks on any other EU policy,” says Agata Gostyńska-Jakubowska, a researcher at the Centre for European Reform, a London-based think tank. “They are about something much more fundamental. The dynamic is unique.”

To start with, EU policy negotiations are generally roundtable affairs at which each member state defends its interests. Coalitions form, balances of power are struck, and compromises with which everyone can agree are generally hammered out.

Brexit was not like that. Those talks pitted the United Kingdom against the 27 remaining EU states. And those 27 were all in agreement from the start on the three issues that were at stake in the “divorce” agreement governing London’s withdrawal.

One question concerned money. In normal EU budget negotiations, the members that are net contributors have different interests from the poorer member states that are net beneficiaries. In the Brexit talks, all were on the same side with the same interest: ensuring the U.K. paid everything it owed.

Stoyan Nenov/Reuers
European Union leaders pose for a group photo during an informal meeting of European Union leaders in Sibiu, Romania, on May 9.

On the second issue, guaranteeing the rights of their citizens living in the U.K., all 27 governments were equally keen to be seen by their public as standing up strongly for their fellow citizens abroad.

And on the delicate issue of the Irish border, nobody wanted to run the risk of a return to civil strife in Northern Ireland that the reintroduction of a “hard” border could imply. Even when the border question became a sticking point, none of Ireland’s EU partners pressured Dublin to make concessions.

That, explains the EU diplomat, is because “the issue was a perfect way of demonstrating” to Euroskeptics across the continent, who question whether EU membership has any benefits, “that solidarity can have teeth and effect.”

The way the EU27 went about the negotiations also bolstered their unity. The European Council, made up of member governments, set the negotiating priorities. The European Commission, comprising the bureaucracy, took charge of the talks and named a negotiator, Michel Barnier, who went out of his way to keep national capitals and the European parliament closely informed of his progress. All three institutions worked unusually closely together through their respective working groups.

On the other side of the channel, in London, officials dithered over their goals and their methods, astonishing EU diplomats who expected them to be consummate negotiators. “The U.K. made it very easy [for the EU to maintain its unity] by finding it so difficult to come up with its own position,” says Jonathan Faull, a Briton and former spokesman for the European Commission. “The U.K. could have fought back, but it gave up.”

Whether it will be so easy to maintain unity in the planned next phase of negotiations – over Britain’s trade relationship with the EU – remains to be seen. Lots of detailed issues on which countries have widely differing interests will need to be discussed, and while the commission has always run trade talks with third countries, negotiations with London will also encompass defense and security issues, fisheries, aviation, research, and extradition, among many other areas.

The difficulty of reconciliation

Most observers expect solidarity to stick. “The upsides of unity are obvious,” says the diplomat. But making it stick during internal EU debates on other topics will be hard simply because of the way members’ interests diverge.

Southern nations where most migrants arrive want to deal with them differently from northern nations where they are headed. Populist governments in Italy, Hungary, and elsewhere are challenging Europe’s traditional liberal values. Some EU members are deeply suspicious of China’s intentions on the continent while others are anxious to attract Chinese investment.

“There are many positions on which direction the EU should take and at what speed, and it is very difficult to reconcile them all,” says Eric Maurice, head of the Brussels office of the Robert Schuman Foundation, named for one of the founding fathers of the EU.

That is not to say the EU cannot agree on anything. In the face of concerns about Chinese influence, the EU parliament recently approved a continent-wide screening process for all Chinese investments in sensitive sectors, for example. Last year the EU applied a state-of-the-art data protection regime it had developed over five years of negotiations.

The European Commission pointed out last month that compromises had been agreed to by consensus for 90% of the new legislation it had proposed and member states had approved over the past five years.

If Brexit holds a lesson for the future, suggests Mr. Vimont, it is that the EU’s key institutions – commission, council, and parliament – can work well together to build unity. But national politics too often get in the way.

“There are solutions to problems like migration that are acceptable to almost everyone,” Mr. Vimont says. “But politicians such as Matteo Salvini in Italy or Viktor Orbán in Hungary can win votes by stirring up fear of migrants.

“Only when Europe’s leaders are ready to set aside politics will solutions be found,” he suggests. “That makes it difficult.”

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