Why Professor Simon Usherwood is more sceptical about the UK than the EU in the Future Relationship talks.


First published in October 2020.


Wednesday saw Michael Gove and David Frost, the UK leads for the current negotiations with the EU, give evidence to Parliamentary committees.

They were very upbeat about it all, pointing to the increasing chances of a deal and sounding conciliatory about compromises on state aid, even as they acknowledged the continuing problems elsewhere.

I noted this on Twitter, but expressed some doubt about it too, since I wasn’t clear whether this was actual “things are going to work out”, or more covering-of-backsides in case it didn’t: the space between ‘it’ll happen’ and ‘it’d have happened if only the other lot had tried as hard as we have’ is relatively small.

Which provoked this response:

I take the point, since I’m well aware that I’m much harder on the UK than the EU in this process and that several readers constantly assume I think the UK should just do whatever the EU wants.

The second point can be dealt with briefly, since my interest is in the parties finding a mutually-acceptable outcome to these negotiations, because that’s the result that will most likely produce stable and constructive relations between them. Where that outcome lies is for the negotiators to decide, not me, but I certainly don’t think it’ll be possible if either side dictates terms.

On the first point, some more consideration is merited.

John’s last comment is certainly true: the EU is, and has long been, very aware of the reputational management aspects of Brexit. The process matters in of itself, but also as a marker of the EU’s wider objectives with its external partners: concessions to the UK would potentially mean concessions elsewhere. The difficulties of the period since 2016 have only strengthened the concern not to get played by the UK into becoming the villain of the piece.

But the two parties have taken very different approaches to the managing of their image in all this.

The UK has consistently had a very tight circle of people around the Prime Minister determining policy, with the bare minimum of engagement with those outside government (and not a huge amount within it). Recall the fights to give Parliament, the courts or any sectoral interest a say in the various stages of creating and developing the British position.

Michael Gove and David Frost, the UK leads for the current negotiations with the EU, giving evidence to Parliamentary committees. / 7 Oct 2020. | UK Parliament

By contrast, the EU has gone the opposite route, with a very high level of transparency from the start. Sure, that’s partly because of the terrible experience of TTIP, and partly because the EU is a very leaky organisation anyway, but still the decision to have very public binding of member states and EU institutions to the several mandates is striking.

Some of this comes down to the representation of Brexit as an existential threat to the EU, driving all on that side towards both high levels of solidarity and to a clear desire for a negotiated outcome (i.e. a deal). The same isn’t true of the UK, where through either calculation or misunderstanding the scale of Brexit wasn’t fully internalised by the government, resulting in much more contestation of the practice and purpose of the exercise.

Put differently, while the EU has taken a line that has been consistent both across time and across its constituent elements, taking actions that reflect that line, the UK has none of that.

As Wednesday’s evidence underlined, much of the work necessary to give effect in the UK to the things already agreed between the two looks doubtful for their 1 January deadline, be that on the Irish protocol implementation or the measures needed for even the British version of what they want from the Future Relationship talks.

Chuck in all the other things, like the Internal Market Bill or the continuing unwillingness of Number 10 to talk to anyone about their plans, and a degree of scepticism about the British ‘position’ is warranted.

This comes back to the question of trust, which is going to colour strongly the next few years of EU-UK relations: words are cheap, so they need to be backed up by appropriate action, and durably so, before they can have real weight by themselves.

And that’s for the good of both the UK and the EU, if they want to find that mutually-acceptable outcome.🔷



Professor Simon Usherwood, Professor at the University of Surrey. All aspects of Brexit and EU-UK relations, plus some learning and teaching.


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[This piece was originally published in the blog of the Department of Politics at the University of Surrey and re-published in PMP Magazine on 9 October 2020, with the author’s consent. | The author writes in a personal capacity.]

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