So. The deed is done. The UK government has respected the 2016 #Brexit UK referendum result and set in motion negotiations (a) to effect the UK’s departure from the European Union, and (b) to create a new UK/EU relationship to replace it.


This will drag on, in some respects for decades. For this evening, some basic thoughts.

It’s easy enough to say that the UK will be ‘negotiating with Brussels’. But Brussels here means primarily the EU Council of Ministers, ie the body representing EU member states and not the European Commission (representing ‘pure’ EU rules/lore/process) or the European Parliament (representing greedy ambition). All of the above and more will pile in, if only to try to get concessions in other areas from being difficult/annoying.

Still, in the end its the member states that need to take the key decisions:

  • How tough to be on these bloody-minded Brits as they go?
  • What should a New Deal with them look like?
  • Timescale?

NB that it’s the member states that call the shots. Why? Because their voters pay! The Commission merely spends.

Note that member states have radically different problems and needs. Malta is not Greece is not Poland is not Germany (or France, or Spain). But they have huge things in common.

National leaders all have to face angry demands from VOTERS moaning about what’s being done or what’s not being done. They have ELECTIONS. Businesses across Europe know that the UK is a vast, fairly sensible market. They want and need to keep selling there, even if they may also hope that the process queers the pitch for key UK competitors. No-one needs more systemic instability, with Italy’s deep Eurozone misery dragging on. All this and much more concentrates minds in capitals.

Note too that even if some capitals are minded to be as awkward as possible, they ALL need to be careful about being too brutal and giving voters the impression that they are trapped in a loveless marriage with no divorce option. All this populism needs careful handling. Yes, we want firmly to discourage anyone else leaving the club, but we don’t want to overdo it. What if we’re next?

Plus if the Brits offer a way to keep contributing sensibly to the European Project (including shared foreign and security policy goals) but from the other side of a new light fence, is that really so different? Is it even worse?

In short, maybe the biggest questions in all this, so big you scarcely see them, come down to this. Our old friends Form and Substance:

  • Is the idea to make everything in the UK/EU relationship as different as possible?
  • Or is it to keep as much as possible largely the same in substance, but done under a new sui generis legal framework?
  • If you want key things to be different, do you want them to look and feel different?
  • If you want key things to stay largely unchanged in substance, do you want them to look and feel unchanged, or look and feel very different for eg political presentation purposes?

Once you look at it all from this point of view, issues can be categorised schematically.

Thus (say) the UK might continue with most of what matters in practice by way of ‘freedom of movement’ for EU citizens while changing the legal basis for it so that emergency brakes and other ploys can be used to ‘limit migration from EU member states’ if really needed.

Likewise most of what happens now to regulate trading laws across the EU might continue, but with some sort of new shared UK/ECJ tribunal regulating issues applying particularly to UK/EU trade? Fiendishly complex in legal terms maybe. But lawyers get paid well for that.

It follows that the essence of the new UK/EU relationship can probably be written on a side and a half of A4, double spaced. Maybe a draft text is already wending its way round key EU capitals. Once that is agreed in principle by key national leaders, and by the European Council’s President Tusk himself who keeps a wary eye on what’s happening back in Poland, the Commission and European Parliament can be brutalised into going along with most of it. The Brits are ghastly enough. An emboldened Commission and Parliament are even worse.

Bear in mind finally that all negotiations come down to these existential elements:

  • Security
  • Resources
  • Control
  • Reputation
  • Time/Risk

That’s why as the UK/EU Brexit haggling starts in earnest, Mrs May struck a Big Picture positive tone. In effect she’s arguing that what the UK and its EU partners have in common on Security (broadly defined) is so big and crucial that deals can be done in the other areas: You give us more Control eg on fishing and free movement – we can be flexible on Resources! 

And beyond all that is a massive prize: a solid new model for a Two-Speed Europe that allows the EU to have a close trading and security relationship with key non-EU European partners partners short of full EU membership. What works for the UK might also work for Ukraine, Turkey and Russia down the road? Think how many tricky problems THAT might help solve?

Will other leaders with all their own problems want to share her would-be optimistic and constructive approach?

Maybe not. Or not all of them, and not at first. There’ll be plenty of noisy jockeying for position for a while.

But, perhaps, as a former UK Prime Minister once famously said, “there is no alternative”. And maybe that way of looking at things can be attached to the great idea of Jean Monnet himself:

If you can’t solve a problem, enlarge the context.