Proposals for new Brexit statecraft

Mistake to prioritise exit terms above future relationship

After the failure of the European Union Salzburg summit to agree UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s Chequers plan for withdrawal, the chances that Britain will leave without a deal have risen significantly. The sooner policy-makers on both sides realise this the better.

Relations between the Britain and the remaining 27 members of the union will further sour if this struggle to craft a deal (which would be unlikely, in any case, to pass through the UK Parliament) is allowed to drag on. The consequences for a future Europe under pressure to prosper in an increasingly unpredictable world economy could be disastrous.

What is needed is a totally different statecraft mapping out how this outcome can be turned into a partnership that both parties can accept. Instead of devoting resources to solve issues with little chance for success, Britain and the EU should turn to matters of mutual beneficial interest. It seems to me, based on my long experience in diplomacy, that too many negotiators and politicians on both sides have overlooked that one of the keys to a successful negotiation is first to agree whether they actually want to clinch a deal. Thereafter the sides start to find out where they are in agreement and then move to build on a solid base.

Britain must realise that it was not asked to leave; it decided to leave. It cannot put forward terms for a future relationship that let it keep some of the advantages of membership while jettisoning those it dislikes. Observing the debate in Britain and in particular comments by Brexiteers, there is the risk of a ‘stab in the back’ myth emerging. The view that Britain was pushed out because the EU rejected ‘reasonable’ demands that were shared by other member states is gaining ground. The echo of Britain putting forward the only sensible deal, while the EU is looking for revenge, is heard. In this prism, the ‘Britain had no choice’ narrative comes out on top. The string of political decisions taken by British politicians over several years leading to this calamity is conveniently put aside. It is repressed that the EU defended its fundamental principles when confronted with former Prime Minister David Cameron’s ‘new terms’ and is doing likewise in the Brexit talks. There is no acknowledgment by the UK that it signed an accession treaty in 1973 with which it never felt comfortable.

Brussels must accept that it is not a crime for a member country to decide that the principles governing the EU are no longer compatible with views about its future place in the world. If Britain concludes that it may be better off out than in, let it try. In the EU vocabulary, Britain will be a third country and an agreement on that basis is called for. The EU must come to terms with the fact that Britain will not be like other third countries. It is a soon-to-be-former member state that for decades shared burdens and benefits with other members and contributed to European integration. It is also an adjacent country with strong economic, political and military links to the remaining members. Neither side should forget that, since 1973, Britain’s economy has been integrated with the EU and an abrupt disruption will be costly for all.

The mistake was to prioritise exit terms above the future relationship. This was not necessarily doomed to failure, but as is now clear it embedded risks of confrontation. Approaching negotiations the other way around might have created a better atmosphere, as the two parties might have realised how much they need one another. There may still be time to turn a potential political catastrophe into a workable relationship anchored by mutual interest.

Joergen Oerstroem Moeller is Senior Research Fellow, ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute, and a former State Secretary at the Danish foreign ministry.

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