EUROPEUM Institute for European Policy

  • As the complex negotiations on Britain’s exit from the EU are set to commence later in June, this article offers a closer look at the British negotiating strategy vis-à-vis Brexit.

The forthcoming Brexit talks will be arguably one of the most complex negotiations ever undertaken by the British government. The process of disentangling the United Kingdom (UK) from more than 40 years of deep integration with the European Union (EU) could be implemented in a number of ways. Likewise, there is a plenty of negotiation paths that the UK might take. As it stands now, two broad-based tendencies have been identified in the British government’s stance towards the withdrawal process (which, to a certain extent, mirror the polarizing lines between Remain and Leave camps). Whereas the defensive approach aims at minimising Brexit-related risks and costs, the aggressive approach focuses on demanding the benefits that the British government believes rightfully belongs to the UK. To strike the right balance between these two will not be an easy task – quite the contrary.

 

British Negotiation Strategy: The Uneasy Task of Balancing Secrecy and Openness

 

This said, there is a lot of uncertainty surrounding Britain’s Brexit negotiation strategy, tactics and priorities. Even more so, as the government has decided to keep its cards more or less hidden and provide only minimal information about how it sees Brexit playing out. In fact, the UK’s policy towards Brexit negotiations has been publicly spelled out in much less detail than the EU’s one, with this lack of information coming under fire virtually from all sides (including Conservative MPs). To make the matters even more challenging, the British government has opted for a highly centralized process while laying out its Brexit strategy.

Obviously, the bottom line is that nobody can really expect putting all the cards on the table at this stage of negotiations. As in any negotiation, maintaining a certain degree of secrecy around one’s negotiating objectives might improve his/her bargaining position.

In any case, the UK government is about to face a delicate task of balancing the increasing demand for information on the one hand and jeopardising its bargaining position on the other.

 

Despite this lack of up-front transparency and clarity, there are many clues suggesting what the British government will aim to achieve in the Brexit “divorce” talks. Most of these objectives were unveiled in British Prime Minister Theresa May’s speech delivered on 17 January 2017 which set out her vision of a UK outside the bloc. To get the British government’s perspective on Brexit, one can also resort to other Theresa May’s speeches as well as her Article 50 notification letter, Government’s White Papers and various public pronouncements from other central figures shaping the government’s position (including, for example, the Brexit Secretary David Davis).

 

Core British Government’s Brexit Priorities: State of Play

 
In principle, the UK’s negotiating position seeks a “deep and special partnership” with the EU post-Brexit, “not partial membership of the European Union, associate membership of the European Union, or anything that leaves [it] half-in, half-out”. More specifically, barring unexpected developments, the British government is to pursue the following policy objectives and priorities vis-á-vis Brexit.

 

  1. Front and centre, it comes as little surprise that the UK wants to control the number of immigrants arriving in the UK, including EU nationals. This is Theresa May’s red line.
  2. Secondly, effectively ruling out the possibility of a soft Brexit, the UK intends to leave the EU’s single market (in all likelihood, with a transition deal) and is expected to retain only a partial membership of the customs union. Put differently, the country will seek to secure a comprehensive and ambitious free trade in goods and services between the UK and EU, but only as a third country outside the single market and customs union. This will give the UK the opportunity to strike its own free trade deals.
  3. Thirdly, the British government has made it crystal clear that it intends to take control of its own laws, no longer being subject to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. The existing body of EU law would be nationalized through the Great Repeal Bill and other UK legislation.
  4. Fourthly, from what has been known so far, the UK wants to maintain the Common Travel Area with Ireland and a soft border with Northern Ireland, with the agreement being preferably reached already at an early stage in the Brexit talks.
  5. Fifthly, the government has announced that it would secure rights of UK nationals living, studying and working in the EU and, vice versa, also EU nationals in the UK as soon as possible.

 

Concluding Remarks: A Long and Bumpy Road Ahead
This choice of priorities suggests that the UK will approach the Brexit negotiations in a transactional sense. To illustrate this point, it seems worth recalling Theresa May’s remark in her letter triggering Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty that “Failure to reach agreement would mean our cooperation in the fight against crime and terrorism would be weakened”. This intention to use security arrangements as a bargaining chip in negotiations has come in for sustained criticism both from the opposition and the EU.

 

In basic terms, many experts view the priorities envisioned by the British government as unrealistic, especially given the tight schedule to complete Brexit within the two-year deadline.

According to many, it is, for example, highly unlikely that negotiations with the EU on a free trade deal will be finalized in two years. All the more considering the EU’s strong preference for phased negotiations (in contrast to parallel, two-track negotiations favoured by the UK).

When taking into account previous EU trade negotiations, a timeframe of five to ten years might be regarded as more realistic. Moreover, the chances of Britain securing a good Brexit deal could be lowered by the poor level of expertise needed for complex trade negotiations (or lack thereof). Put another way, even though the UK does have some tough negotiators, it has been accused of lacking trained trade negotiators. Last but not least, it is also the EU’s “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” negotiating policy that significantly increases the likelihood of a so-called cliff-edge Brexit.

 

In conclusion, one looming question remains: to what extent the UK’s Brexit priorities will be influenced by the 8 June snap election results. The very election that Theresa May called in order to strengthen her hand and political backing in the complicated negotiations on the British exit from the EU.

Mgr. Monika Brusenbauch Meislová, Ph.D.

Dr Monika Brusenbauch Meislová is a lecturer and researcher based at the Department of Politics and European Studies at Palacký University Olomouc in the Czech Republic. Her long-term research interests include British and Czech foreign policies, including UK-EU relations and Czech-British relations.

 

 

Bibliography:

 

Department for Exiting the European Union. 2017. The United Kingdom’s exit from and new partnership with the European Union White Paper. UK government, 2 February 2017. Available from https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-united-kingdoms-exit-from-and-new-partnership-with-the-european-union-white-paper

 

House of Commons. 2017. The Government’s negotiating objectives: the White Paper. Third Report of Session 2016–17. 29 March 2017. Available from https://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201617/cmselect/cmexeu/1125/1125.pdf

 

May, Theresa. 2017. Prime Minister’s letter to Donald Tusk triggering Article 50. 29 UK government, March 2017. Available from https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/prime-ministers-letter-to-donald-tusk-triggering-article-50

May, Theresa. 2017. The government’s negotiating objectives for exiting the EU: PM speech. UK government, 17 January. Available from https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/the-governments-negotiating-objectives-for-exiting-the-eu-pm-speech

Startup, Tom – Wood, Claudia. 2017. Making the most of Brexit. Opportunities and risks to a fairer, more sustainable economy. Demos, March 2017. Available from https://www.demos.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/Demos-final-brexit-report-v2.pdf

 

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