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KLICE Comment July/August 2016

The outcome of the UK referendum viewed from Brussels

Guy Milton is Head of Media Relations at the Council of the European Union.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and in no way reflect the views of the Council or the European Council.

The outcome of the UK referendum was largely unexpected in Brussels, particularly amongst the nationals of the other 27 member states, and has therefore hit all the harder. An initial sense of shock has given way to a mixture of anger, sadness, and confusion. Membership of the EU has all too frequently been characterised in the UK as a transactional arrangement, whose value to the national interest is assessed against rather narrow criteria (usually those of economic benefit). Negotiations are of course part of the basic tradecraft of the EU, but most other member states prefer to see these as part of a process of community-building, regarding the EU in terms of a relationship. Now that relationship is set to break up, and as with all divorces, emotions are raw.

The shock at the vote itself was swiftly followed by bewilderment at the spectacle of political confusion and tension in the UK. Many in Brussels said they had difficulty in recognising the Britain for which they had genuine affection and admiration (despite its capacity over the years to generate much frustration amongst its EU partners).

As when any personal relationship breaks down, there are a number of issues which need to be addressed in order to move forward. The top priority concerns the divorce settlement, of which there are two elements: the terms of separation, and the shape of the future relationship. But there is also the issue of how each side (and particularly the EU as an organisation) is going to move on and carve out a new and distinctive identity for itself.

As far as the divorce settlement is concerned, the remaining 27 member states have made it very clear that there can be no negotiation of any kind before the UK government invokes Article 50 of the Treaty. This sets out the procedures to be followed in the event that a member state asks to leave, although it has of course never been used. It now seems generally accepted by others that the UK is not going to begin the process for several months in order to give it time to define its own negotiating objective and strategy. But if there were any suggestion that the UK were deliberately prevaricating, the level of frustration amongst the 27, who cannot force the UK to act, would increase and probably spill over to the subsequent negotiations.

Both sides will have to determine both the objectives and limits of their respective negotiating mandates. The 27 are driven by a mix of factors. They recognise that fractious negotiations will not help anyone, but their patience has been sorely tested, and many of them are anxious to demonstrate to sceptics back home that exiting comes with a heavy price-tag. They want the UK as a 'close partner' of the EU, but have also been clear that access to the Single Market requires acceptance of all 'four freedoms' (goods, persons, services and capital).

On process, it is not yet clear to what extent, and how, the terms of separation will be linked to negotiations on the future UK-EU relationship. The first would constitute a legal settlement between the UK and the 27 of at least the basic minimum of issues required before the British Parliament could take the necessary domestic steps to withdraw. The second would probably be longer and more complex. If the outcome were to take the form of an international treaty it would require ratification, and this takes time. In this case, some sort of transitional measures would be needed if the UK were to avoid being left in a legal and policy limbo.

The second strand of work is how the 27 pick themselves up and move on. The UK would be wise to keep in mind the importance for the 27 of this part of the process, which could have a direct impact on the divorce proceedings. It is, after all, about how to keep the rest of the family together.

The UK has always tended to underestimate the strength of political commitment of the core countries in particular, not least France and Germany, to preserving the Union and the Euro. For them, this is an existential, not an opportunist issue. If forced to choose, the future of the EU family would take precedence over the terms of relations with the UK. Even if not obliged to choose, it will serve as a prism through which they see the negotiations with the UK.

The outcome of the UK referendum has obliged the 27 to reassess their own future journey together. They are all too aware that scepticism about the EU is not confined to the UK. Few leaders across the EU could claim with confidence that they would win a similar referendum in their own country. So lessons need to be drawn from Brexit, but as Dutch Prime Minister Rutte said, this is not really a question of whether we have 'more' or 'less' Europe (i.e., do we increase the powers of the EU institutions, or do we rather repatriate some powers to the member states), which is often how the debate has traditionally been framed.

This strand of work will be picked up at a special summit of the 27 in Bratislava (Slovakia has just taken over the rotating Presidency) in September. There will doubtless be some calls for new policy initiatives (the French and Germans are already suggesting more cooperation in the area of security and defence) but the focus is likely to be more on how to deliver policies which are seen to be effective and relevant. If this means tackling the perception of a 'democratic deficit', it is less likely to be about changing formal lines of accountability than looking at how to give Europe's citizens a more direct and greater stake in the collective decisions taken by national governments on their behalf.

Negotiations on the terms of divorce and the shape of the future relationship are likely to be long and very complex. Forty years of being part of the family have meant that the UK's legislative and administrative system is more intertwined with that of the EU than most realise. Unravelling it will take time and valuable energy. Getting the future relationship right has to be a priority. If the UK has decided that it can no longer be part of the family (some would claim it never fully was) it is vital that it adopts a constructive approach towards an EU which will itself need to change. If those parallel processes help promote interdependence, mutual respect and even a degree of humility, then we may look forward to a (long-term) future in which both the UK and EU could flourish. The alternative looks much less bright.


Guy Milton has worked in the General Secretariat of the Council of the European Union since 1995, specialising in foreign policy and institutional issues. He was a member of the secretariat to the Convention and the Intergovernmental Conferences which drew up the European Constitution and the Lisbon Treaty, and was Head of Unit for relations between the Council and European Parliament for six years. In 2015 he took up the post of Head of Media Relations. Formerly he worked in the UK diplomatic service. He is author of The European Constitution (John Harper Publishing, 2005) and ‘God and the Constitution’, in God and the EU: Faith in the European Project, Jonathan Chaplin and Gary Wilton, eds, (Routledge, 2016), 191-207.

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