Quite naturally the British media is awash with commentary on when Article 50 should be triggered, what the UK’s negotiating position should be and what deal would be acceptable to a divided domestic electorate; key Brexit drivers. Even from a solely UK perspective, the up-coming negotiations look complex – and we are one nation, seeking a solution which will be good for just us – imagine the tensions which must lie ahead for the various countries and factions which form the EU. Brexiters have argued that the EU is dysfunctional because it can never speak with one authoritative voice but the UK’s negotiating team is now depending on it to be able to do just that. It’s a big ask.
Given the complexities that lie ahead, it seems odd to me that considerably less time has been spent looking at what the motivators and expectations of our European counterparts might be.
So here are a few Brexit drivers to consider:
• It’s not been done before – no country has ever invoked Article 50 and so the negotiating process and protocols are just as new and unknown to the remaining EU member states as they are to the UK. There are no precedents and the 27 countries which will remain within the EU will have to agree a common approach and negotiating position (and that’s before we even get to the stage of agreeing a final deal.) Add to this that there are also a number of institutions involved (European Council, European Parliament and European Commission) which will all (as they always do) be jockeying for influence, power and prestige as the process gets even more complicated.
• Consent of individual parliaments – if an agreement can be reached in principle between the UK and the EU and this agreement is deemed to be a ‘mixed agreement’ (ie if the agreement covers not only trade but also such issues as security and foreign policy), then the agreement will need to be ratified by every individual national parliament of every EU member state. If one country fails to ratify, the deal falls apart. At the very least, this lengthens the process; at worst it makes it nigh on impossible to reach a ‘mixed agreement’.
• Competing priorities – without simplifying things too much we can assume that, as a single state, the UK will go into a negotiation knowing what the end game is and what is and what is not negotiable. Can the EU ever realistically get to that point? Trade might well be at the very top of the list for Germany (that’s what we are continually told in the UK anyway) whereas free movement of labour might be the deal breaker for a number of Eastern European countries. If this were to be the case, how can the EU ever drive through a deal which will satisfy all member states?
• Internal EU tensions – it would be naive in the extreme to think of the UK negotiating against a bank of EU member states who are aligned and completely at ease with each other. There are massive internal tensions within the EU club based on economic, cultural and historic differences. Will Greece really back Germany to the hilt given the recent economic debacle and its aftermath? Will Germany and France be able to discard historic and cultural enmities and speak with one voice? Do Denmark and Romania share the same vision for the future given their differing stages of development in so many areas? It’s a big ask.
• The fear factor – many British people probably voted ‘remain’ out of a fear of the unknown. Nobody can predict with any accuracy what the results of the upcoming negotiations will be – let alone what the impacts of any deal might be over a 10 – 20 year period. Lots of Europeans share these fears. They worry that if the UK cuts a favourable deal, then other countries might be tempted to jump ship and invoke Article 50 themselves. Where would this cycle end? It could mean years and years of negotiations, leading to recession across Europe and beyond; it could even lead to the break-up of the EU itself. Given this apocalyptic vision, people might feel that Britain needs to be treated harshly to deter potential future defectors.
• Cultural differences – I’m intending to write a fuller blog on this topic in relation to the Brexit negotiations but, in short, cultural differences could play a very large part in how these negotiations develop and I fear that the UK negotiating team will just not be culturally fluent enough to navigate their way through this potential maelstrom. I spend most of my life coaching senior business leaders on the intricacies of negotiating various scenarios across the barriers of geography, culture and language and everybody agrees how difficult that can be. I cannot think of a more complex cross-border, cross-cultural situation than the Brexit negotiations. Who will be running these negotiations on behalf of the UK? How culturally fluent will they be? Will they understand the myriad of contrasting and conflicting cultural nuances they will need to decipher? It’s a big ask.
I don’t intend to be negative. The EU and the UK face a massive challenge which they need to rise to and come out stronger at the other end. It is absolutely essential that we in the UK understand our European counterparts and the challenges they face which will underpin their Brexit drivers and expectations.
It’s a big ask.
Keith Warburton is CEO of Think Global Growth and a recognised expert on the impact on international cultural difference on cross-border trade.