Theresa May Needs to Learn to Speak European

Theresa May meets Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte in The Hague on 3 July. Photo: Getty Images.
Theresa May meets Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte in The Hague on 3 July. Photo: Getty Images.

Negotiating Brexit was never going to be easy. At home, two senior cabinet members resigned over the white paper on the UK’s future partnership with the EU. Meanwhile, debates continue to rage in parliament over customs arrangement and the Irish border.

The next big test will be whether Theresa May can sell her position to the EU. Some of the best European political watchers have welcomed the government’s plan as a basis for constructive negotiations. But if the UK is serious about avoiding a no deal, it will first have to regain the EU’s trust by adopting a more nuanced negotiating style that reflects how other member states negotiate in Brussels. Officials will, in other words, need to get better at speaking European.

Member states have different ways of getting what they want in Brussels. The UK’s approach over the years has been largely transactional: as a big player, it backed those proposals it supported (such as the completion of the single market) and was vocal when it disagreed (joining Schengen and later the eurozone).

Its strategy was simple: be clear on your intentions in the council and build alliances in Brussels and capital cities to support your cause. It was also effective. A study by the London School of Economics shows that the UK was on the winning side of the argument 87 per cent of the time between 2009 and 2015.

This approach will not work for Brexit. First, the way the EU negotiates makes it more difficult for the UK to build alliances to support its cause. A common misunderstanding in the UK is to see the European Commission as one player among 28. It is not. Instead, it negotiates on behalf of the 27, based on a mandate from the council. Michel Barnier’s team agree all positions with member states and speak to them before and after each negotiating round. The EU27 have also been particularly sensitive to attempts to divide them. Understanding this process is the first step to developing a successful negotiating style that resonates with EU decision-makers.

Second, British negotiators will need to demonstrate how the UK’s proposals add value to the EU itself. The EU has set rules and procedures when it comes to co-operating with third countries so getting it to change its rules to satisfy UK demands alone was never a viable strategy, especially since the EU’s inflexibility has proven to be quite the asset in helping it to secure what it wants in trade negotiations with third countries. But it also explains why some of its policies, such as climate or foreign policy, lack grand vision.

This is where France’s approach to EU negotiations could come in handy: avoid pushing the national line and present your ideas as European-wide solutions. This would involve building a case for why a new kind of arrangement would not only improve EU trade, but also the way the EU cooperates with third countries in other areas such as security and migration. It would also send a political message that the UK remains firmly committed to Europe.

Then, there is the German approach. Yes, you need to know what you want but you also need to demonstrate how this relationship would work in practice. Questions of governance matter hugely to the EU; it’s a way of getting things done but also a way to monitor implementation and resolve disputes if and when they arise.

The real concern then is not whether the UK and the EU have common rules, but rather how you manage trade disruptions when they do not. The case of Switzerland shows that the EU is unlikely to agree to new joint regulatory structures but this should not prevent the UK from suggesting new and ambitious ways of supervising and enforcing common rules. This kind of creative thinking might also make the EU more willing to come up with alternatives, even if this inevitably means a looser trade relationship with the UK than it has today.

But for Brexit to be a success, you also need British pragmatism. The government realizes it cannot have all the benefits of EU membership without all the obligations. The UK cannot expect the same level of access as it has today. But we often forget the key role the UK played in shaping the EU and in particular when it challenged the status quo in favour of far-reaching change: the single market and the 2004 enlargement process were both championed by the UK.

Similarly, Brexit could be an opportunity to come up with new bold ways for the EU to cooperate with third countries, which builds upon but advances beyond existing precedents. Eight months away from the UK’s exit and a dialogue of the deaf has replaced 44 years’ of common language, eroding trust and squandering any lingering goodwill.

The final outcome will be a creative compromise between what the UK and the EU want, and what is feasible. British negotiators will have a larger chance of succeeding if they show greater understanding for how decisions are shaped in Brussels and adopt a more nuanced language that mixes all three approaches: French European-wide vision, German process and British pragmatism.

Georgina Wright, Research Associate, Europe Programme.

This article was originally published in The Times.

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