The other side of the table. How the EU is shaping up to approach Brexit negotiations

October 7th, 2016

To date, most British commentary on the impending negotiations on Brexit have concentrated on what negotiating position Britain might take, as Theresa May’s government gropes towards a tenable approach.  It takes two to tango and so we need to consider how the EU is going to negotiate also.  This has been given much less attention.

Such attention as has been given to the EU’s side of the story usually alights on the same few key players.  We have heard much of the views of Guy Verhofstadt, Jean-Claude Juncker and the reported views of Angela Merkel.  But as well as the European Commission, the European Parliament and Germany, there are 26 other countries, all of which will have their say.  The EU has never spoken with a single voice and its policy positions are reached deliberatively.  The views of the more familiar faces will need to be weighed in the balance with the beliefs of Boyko Borisov of Bulgaria on Brexit, among others.

I have put together a table (LINK HERE) setting out the views of the different countries on Brexit, so far as I have been able to establish them.  I have mostly confined myself to public statements because those are the ones that can’t be backed out of.

Some governments have been surprisingly reticent about going on the record.  Some countries – Portugal and Greece, for example – may simply be too preoccupied with other matters.  Some may be trying to work behind the scenes to keep the EU’s position fluid: the Netherlands and Estonia may be examples of that.  Some, particularly in the eastern half of the continent, may simply not be all that interested.

We still have a lot of material to go on and there are some clear themes that come out of this.

No freedom of movement means no single market participation

One theme comes out over and over again.  If Britain wants to restrict freedom of movement, it will need to give up on the idea of full engagement in the single market.   The same idea is expressed in different words by Jean-Claude Juncker, Guy Verhofstadt, and politicians from Romania, Croatia, the Czechs, Austria, Latvia, Sweden, France and Germany.  The chance of all of them eating their words must be very slight indeed.

The Visegrad 4 countries (Poland, Slovakia, Czechia and Hungary) are working together closely to ensure that their nationals are not demoted to second class citizens.  The Slovak Prime Minister has threatened a joint veto of any deal unless they felt a guarantee that their people living and working in Britain were equal.

It gets worse.  Some have gone further and ruled out the idea of any participation in the single market if there is any restriction on freedom of movement, making a compromise seem impossible.  The hardest line is being taken by the EU institutions.  Jean-Claude Juncker has stated “I can’t see any possibility of compromising on that very issue”.  The leader of the EPP group in the European Parliament has used almost identical words.  While Angela Merkel has used much more nuanced phrasing, she does not have sole control of the process.

If there is to be compromise, there’s going to need to be some serious backtracking by the institutions.  It seems a better working assumption that the EU is not going to permit any participation from the inside in the single market without full freedom of movement.  Hard Brexit beckons.

Other countries have their own agendas

The British are so used to thinking about Brexit from their perspective, they haven’t thought much about what it means for most other countries.  There’s been some consideration of the Irish position, but that’s about it.  Yet several countries see Brexit as throwing up points of direct concern for them.


The Irish are caught in a cleft stick.  They are keen to keep close economic ties with Britain and are seeking out a special deal for themselves.  They are also keen to make sure that the Northern Irish peace process is not disrupted by Brexit.  As the country apart from Britain that is most directly affected by Brexit, Ireland is anxious to secure equitable terms for Britain.  However, the Irish look to be in a small minority.


Where Ireland sees difficulties, Spain sees opportunities.  It is looking to use the negotiations to exert more influence over Gibraltar and is threatening to seek to get Britain to pick up the tab for medical fees for British citizens in Spain.  It is quite possible that Spain will act opportunistically in the negotiations.


Britain is one of Cyprus’s guarantors of its independence, territorial integrity and security.  Cyprus is anxious to ensure that will not be disrupted by Brexit.

Poland and Czechia

Both Poland and Czechia have made representations directly to the Prime Minister about the attacks on their nationals in the wake of the referendum vote, seeking to ensure that their nationals are protected.  It should be a matter of national shame that such representations are thought to be necessary but they have passed almost unnoticed.

The EU institutions are out for blood

Much has been made of the European Parliament’s appointment of Guy Verhofstadt as their chief negotiator and he is certainly revelling in his role as Britain’s antagonist.  Few have commented on Jean–Claude Juncker having appointed Michel Barnier as the Commission’s Mr Brexit.  M. Barnier is a Gaullist who customarily refuses to speak in English and who became a pantomime villain of the British press when he was Commissioner for the Internal Market and Services.  It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Brussels is in no mood to play nice.  Since M. Barnier is going to be taking the lead on negotiations for the entire EU, this looks likely to be fairly tough going.  This isn’t going to be a pretty fight.

Alastair Meeks