Book Review ‘Inside the Deal: How the EU got Brexit Done’, Stefaan De Rynck, Agenda, 2023
This book tells the story of the Brexit negotiations from the point of view of the EU by a senior EU negotiator. It is a reminder of the tortuous course of the process and the more or less complete failure of the British government to achieve its objectives, not least because it was never too clear about what these were; or perhaps more accurately, if it did have ideas, these were none to clear and not possible to achieve.
Anyone with any interest in Brexit will be aware that Britain appeared to believe that the EU needed Britain more than Britain needed the EU and that certain countries had a particular interest in the British market. These would be keen on a deal that facilitated unrestricted access; for example that German car makers would put pressure on Angela Merkel to make sure no barriers were put up to selling their cars in Britain. In fact German industry (and others, including the Spanish so reliant on British holiday makers) lobbied to ensure protection of the EU’s single market.
This meant British diplomacy believed it could prise individual states away from the EU negotiators and undermine a united EU response. This was backed up by repeated threats that if Britain didn’t get what it wanted it could walk away with no deal. This was sometimes accompanied by threats of ending security cooperation, which the author of the book acknowledges the British usually to the lead on. Ironically it was the EU in the final agreement that rejected an important aspect of military cooperation in which the British were very keen to be involved.
Their negotiating tactics often amounted to not negotiating and dragging their feet, as if the EU would come running, expecting the EU to be in some way desperate to maintain the relationship due to the cost of the divorce. Merkel recalled at an informal occasion at Davos that ‘May kept asking me to make an offer’, as if the party walking away should be given whatever was required to have it still hanging around. Merkel said “I told her it is the UK that is leaving. The UK should tell us what it wants.”
British tactics also involved repeatedly deferring Brexit through delaying notification of leaving, extending the period of negotiation, and demanding a transition period while then running down the clock in the face of deadlines that piled on the pressure to get a deal. This pressure was placed particularly on the British side because Tory leaders were continually under pressure from their Eurosceptic MPs to demonstrate progress in getting Brexit done. What would be the problem if the EU did indeed need Britain so much?
While this was supposed to be the case, British sources continually leaked stories to the media in London that the EU negotiators had made outrageous demands that Britain had rejected. EU negotiators then began to find that this was the prelude to acceptance of the actual EU proposals, at which point the press in London would claim a great victory!
De Rynck notes that while the British media in Brussels often had a better grasp of what was going on, their counterparts in London regurgitated the same Brexit delusions of Tory MPs for home consumption. This was the case even where the British made agreements and then talked at home as if they hadn’t, or openly backtracked on them in front of the domestic audience. Threats would be made, and no action ever follow.
While the whole exercise was based on ‘taking back control’ the negotiations revealed how little control Britain had; its parsimony on protecting citizen’s rights in the Withdrawal Agreement revealing the reactionary priorities behind the project. Taking back control meant taking control of citizens’ rights and trashing them. Theresa May would tell Italian television she was guaranteeing the rights of their compatriots in the UK at the same time as her negotiating team was arguing to take some away.
And it wasn’t even the rights of foreigners that were to be discarded. De Rynck writes – that ‘Madrid seemed more concerned about the Brits in Spain than London was an impression activist NGOs often confirmed at that time in conversations with Barnier’s team.’ Some EU states wanted EU nationals to have the same rights in the UK as UK nationals would have, except that this would give UK nationals in the EU more rights and better protection than EU nationals in the UK.
De Rynck appears to view with some wry amusement the visits to Brussels of British political delegations to meet with Michel Barnier, including those tasked with monitoring the Brexit process, with their innocent suggestions for progress but clear incomprehension about what the problem was.
He makes clear that the united response by the EU member states and refusal to be divided was a result of EU membership and its single market being much more important to them than Britain. The EU was completely conscious that it was the stronger party and British claims that it was going to get ‘a great trade deal’ with the United States, as promised by Donald Trump, failed completely to influence EU negotiators. None of the US officials met by an EU delegation to Washington supported Britain and audiences were mostly in favour of deepening the single market in order to benefit US investment. The EU was also aware of British intentions to make agreements and not implement them, which is why unilateral enforcement was included in the texts.
It never struck the British that if they hadn’t got what they wanted by threatening to leave they weren’t going to get it once they had decided to go. Boris Johnson had claimed that after voting to leave Britain would get a better deal than David Cameron’s attempt before it, while some member states thought Cameron had got too much.
The British never seemed to ‘smell the coffee’ even after the repeated refusal of members states to enter into bilateral discussions, or to appreciate that British political difficulties and divisions did not mean that the EU would decide they should be helped to overcome them. Rather it was taken as a warning for EU negotiators not to get embroiled. Repeated resignations by British negotiators, of David Davis, Dominic Raab and David Frost no doubt assisted the Brexiteers in not learning from experience, although perhaps resignation was the best course individuals could take to avoid their fingerprints over failure.
Above all, the EU was determined to protect its single market, which meant that there was to be no cherry-picking and no having cake and eating it, where Britain would be able to have access for some favoured sectors but not for others. Neither was there to be mutual recognition of each other’s standards, which effectively meant the British could establish the market’s rules. EU negotiators raised the issue of their own sovereignty when the British proclaimed theirs, while other Eurosceptics such as Le Pen in France, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, Salvini in Italy and the Sweden Democrats rowed back on their opposition to the EU or the Euro.
De Rynck has negative judgements to make on the British Labour Party, which he accuses of having givien a blank cheque to the Conservative government by voting for withdrawal without knowing the destination the government wanted to go in. He records that Starmer while accompanying Corbyn, just like Theresa May, wanted full single market access while restricting free movement of EU nationals. The Labour MP Hilary Benn, who led the House of Commons Committee on Exiting the EU, visited Brussels and asked questions ‘from a different galaxy.’ Benn wondered why divergence from EU rules was a problem as the UK would still be more aligned than any other country. From the point of view of the EU, and apart from dynamic alignment being a problem, there was no point to Brexit if the British did not change their rules, with this change expected to be in the opposite direction. Why would it agree to that?