Having spent three years very close to the EU side, I think it is important to correct some inaccuracies in Anand Menon’s Financial Times piece on how the EU intransigence has presumably driven the UK, important trade and security partner, further away.

First published in November 2019.

"An inflexible Brussels is damaging its own interests over Brexit", by Anand Menon. / FT

Conclusions like this make it necessary to revisit Anand Menon’s piece. The EU bent over backwards to deliver the deal the UK Government wanted. Theresa May failed to get it through the House of Commons.

A few days after the 2016 referendum, senior German, French and Italian officials met privately in Berlin to caucus their response to Brexit. Besides determining there could be “no negotiations without notification”, it was clear then that Member States were very focussed on the-long term future relationship.

Contrary to Anand Menon’s claim that there was an “egregious failure” by Member States to think about the long-term future relationship, for the first several months after referendum, that is, in fact, all they did. What changed? When Michel Barnier started assembling the Task Force for the preparation and conduct of the negotiations with the UK under Article 50 TEU (TF50), they encouraged a different approach. Rather than “eclipsing the substance” as Anand Menon argues, the TF50 approach was driven by its fundamental understanding of the EU’s long-term substantive interests:

1) Protect the Single Market (as the trade among 27 is superior to a bilateral trade with the UK);

2) Protect the risk of a precedent (this is not something that the EU can afford to be complacent over, even with opinion polls on the EU moving in the right direction – Salvini in Italy and his friends across the EU remain a medium to long-term challenge); and

3) Ensure the legal certainty for the EU at the time of the UK’s exit (Multiannual financial framework – the EU’s long-term budget; Irish border; EU nationals in the UK).

So yes, the EU Commission did dominate, but that is because the Commission is best placed to identify and articulate what makes most sense for the EU27 in aggregate. It plays a similar role in the EU’s everyday life, albeit imperfectly, cajoling Member States to make tough choices that work in the interests of the Union.

On selective access and cherry picking, is it bunkum, as Raphael Hogarth and Anand Menon imply, to recognise that the Single Market is an ecosystem that cannot easily be picked apart? France, Germany and other Member States don’t trust each other. The reason the level playing field (LPF) standards are respected is precisely because they are overseen by the European Court of Justice (ECJ).

This is both a political and a legal reality. And surely the UK cannot, as a departing Member State, expect to have greater influence over EU rules on the outside than it did as a fully signed up Member State? Ditto any exceptions to free movement and other three freedoms which are an integral part of the Single Market.

To compare the EU’s relationship to Ukraine (which wants to converge), Norway, Switzerland or Iceland (small) as benchmark for the UK misses the point. The purpose of Brexit is that the UK Government wants to diverge. It wants to compete. Why is it in the EU’s interests to facilitate that?

The last point I’ll make is that post-Chequers, it was the EU Commission – not the Member States – that ultimately compromised and signed up to a version of Theresa May’s deal; allowing a defacto Customs Union with minimal, dynamic level playing field conditions to be written into the Withdrawal Agreement. Far from intransigence, these were very big moves by the Task Force 50 to facilitate a deal for Olly Robbins and Theresa May. It put Michel Barnier in a very tough spot with Member States, especially the French, and highlights a misunderstanding that Anand Menon again echoes: “If only the Commission would move out of the way, a more sensible deal is there to be done.”

This is wrong. Why? Because Member States have, for most part, been tougher on Brexit than Brussels. The EU Commission as the bogeyman caricature doesn’t fly. (Neither does the idea that Brussels was holding out for a second referendum; President Tusk was, but he was isolated and not reflecting the views of the capitals)

Perhaps what is worth reflecting on is why we, in the UK, assign an importance to ourselves that the EU doesn’t see, or perhaps doesn’t see to the same extent – in light of its other strategic priorities (eg Emmanuel Macron’s interview in the Economist)?

Just because the EU has not created an off-ramp for the kind of trade and security links the UK would like to maintain is not necessarily an indication of strategic EU myopia, but perhaps our failure to acknowledge our own importance relative to the EU’s own priorities going forward.🔷

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[This piece was first published as a Twitter thread and turned into the above article on 21 November 2019, with the author’s consent, with the purpose of reaching a larger audience. It has been minorly edited and corrected. | The author of the tweets writes in a personal capacity.]

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