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The EU Can Also Learn from Brexit

The EU Can Also Learn from Brexit
 Georgina Wright
Resident Senior Fellow and Deputy Director for International Studies

The Brexit episode is not one the UK or the EU will forget easily. Drama in the UK Parliament, the president of the EU Council’s use of Instagram and hours of negotiations that ultimately resulted in a 2020 Christmas deal. Whatever the merits (or not) of the UK-EU trade and cooperation agreement, the fact that negotiators finalised it in under 11 months is an extraordinary achievement. EU trade agreements usually take between 1,5 and 7 years to conclude - and this partnership covers a lot more than just trade.

There are plenty of lessons to be learned too. The UK quickly discovered that negotiating inside the EU is a very different experience to negotiating with the EU. It knows that a tariff-free deal is not hassle-free. And with many EU rules continuing to apply in Northern Ireland, and given the volume of trade between the UK and the EU, the UK won’t be able to turn its back on Brussels just yet.

There are also some Brexit takeaways for the EU. The first is that the EU performs better when member states work together. The second is that it desperately needs a more nuanced and balanced debate about its future.

Unity is the EU’s strength

The one constant in the Brexit negotiations - apart from Michel Barnier - was the EU’s united front on the message and on the strategy. This isn’t entirely a surprise. The EU is after all a formidable negotiator and approaches each trade negotiation in much the same way: appoint the right team and always keep member states and the EU Parliament in the loop. This was all the more prescient given the little time available for UK-EU negotiations and the need to act quickly.

The one constant in the Brexit negotiations was the EU’s united front on the message and on the strategy.

The EU also uses its unity as leverage. Getting the EU Parliament, 27 governments (and sometimes their national and regional assemblies) to agree is a tricky balancing act. A sudden shift in the EU position risks unravelling it all together. That’s why it is so hard for a third country to get the EU to move decisely away from its original position without moving substantially in return.

But EU unity is a lot harder to achieve in internal EU negotiations. You only need to look at budget negotiations to see the strain between and within the different EU institutions. Every additional euro spent on agriculture, for example, is one euro less for another EU policy, like defence or EU staffing. No-one gets everything they want. But the Brexit process does show that regular and open feedback throughout the process can foster trust between the EU institutions.

The EU needs a more nuanced debate

The EU also needs a more genuine debate about its future. Too often, it is framed in binary terms: you are either pro-European, or you are not. The result is a debate that is combative and too reductionist; it also alienates the many Europeans who don’t feel they fit in either category.

Some of this work has already started. In the run-up to the EU’s 60th anniversary celebration, the Juncker European Commission published a White Paper with five options for EU integration: from granting more power to the EU, focusing exclusively on the single market and agreeing to more flexible cooperation in other areas like foreign policy. The 2019 Parliament elections also saw the arrival of a more fractured but diverse EU Parliament. But if the EU is serious about its future, it cannot afford to limit these debates to the corridors of Brussels and Strasbourg.

The EU also needs to get much better at explaining what it does, who has responsibility for what and how citizens can, if they choose to, influence EU decisions. The EU is far from a homogenous blob: the EU Commission is accountable to the 27 EU governments. EU governments have common interests, but also many differences. Guy Verhofstadt is not the only MEP. And small member states do matter. Understanding how the EU works won’t necessarily make people like the EU more - but it might help them to understand how it impacts their lives and where it doesn’t (there are still many national policies, like education, tourism and health, over which the EU has a very limited say).

Brexit was a historic decision which will have implications for years to come. As the dust settles, the UK and the EU would be wise to reflect on what this means for their relationship - and crucially for themselves.



Copyright: OLI SCARFF / AFP

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