On Brexit negotiations, the European Union may not be that united

Andrew Hammond says the UK isn’t facing just one set of Brexit negotiations but several, since positions among European Union members differ from country to country

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 December, 2017, 6:03pm
UPDATED : Monday, 04 December, 2017, 7:18pm

UK Prime Minister Theresa May is due to meet her Spanish counterpart Mariano Rajoy on Tuesday in a visit underlining how each European Union state’s distinct interests inform its Brexit stance.

Positions vary according to factors such as trade ties and migration patterns with the United Kingdom, domestic election pressures and levels of Euroscepticism in their populaces. Spain benefits economically from around 300,000 UK citizens residing there, and has a significant trade deficit with Britain, which would favour a softer negotiating position.

But Spain has invited the British government to negotiations on Gibraltar, the UK overseas territory on the southern Spanish coast, including proposals for joint sovereignty. The fact that Rajoy may yet play hardball in Brexit negotiations is reflected in his reported remarks to May that such a joint sovereignty model would, under a “hard Brexit” scenario of the UK leaving the European Single Market and Customs Union, be the only way Gibraltar could maintain the access to the single market that its economy needs. Gibraltar, though, remains strongly opposed to enhanced political ties with Spain. Madrid’s negotiating position towards Brexit is also shaped by the secessionist threat from Catalonia and the Basque Country. Spain strongly opposed Scotland’s independence in the 2014 referendum.

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Poland’s stance in the negotiations is also informed by its seeking of guarantees for the approximately 850,000 Polish-born residents in the UK. Poland is lobbying as part of the Visegrad group – also including Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic – accounting for more than a million UK residents. The group does not have a “qualified majority” to veto a Brexit deal, but may seek a blocking coalition if its citizens’ rights to live and work in the UK are not enshrined.

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France, however, may have the most difficult posture to the UK’s exit. President Emmanuel Macron believes Brexit to be an act of political vandalism and his positioning, including his robust stance on future UK access to the single market, is reinforced by broader French plans to tout Paris as a competing financial centre to London. Last month, Macron hailed the decision to relocate the European Banking Agency to Paris from London as “recognition of France’s attractiveness and European commitment”. French officials hope the relocation will bring many thousands of UK banking jobs to the French capital.

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These distinctive interests add to the complexity of Brexit negotiations. As Brussels seeks a unified EU stance, UK officials will try to shape positions of countries that could be key allies or foes.

Andrew Hammond is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics