How Europeans Leaders Perceive Theresa May’s Brexit Speech and Why It Matters

by Christoph Meyer, Professor of European & International Politics at EIS

Prof Christoph Meyer

The speech by the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, outlining the government’s principles and approaches to Brexit was greeted with enthusiasm by leading “leave campaigners” and the Brexit-supporting press. UKIP’s only MP Douglas Carswell said ‘I would not have changed a word’. This enthusiasm from English Eurosceptics is unsurprising given that the PM set out an approach that made ditching freedom of movement and European Courts jurisdiction the number one priority and rejected the option of retaining full access to the single market through arguing for retaining European Economic Area membership a la Norway.

Yet, parts of the speech confirmed a familiar pattern of how British leaders misunderstand how their words are going to be perceived in mainland Europe and fail to anticipate the consequences of prioritising domestic politics for the negotiation dynamics in Brussels. One major problem is the asymmetry in mutual perceptions coupled with a history of Britain’s dwindling political capital in European politics since the end of the Blair period. Many European decision-makers and opinion-shapers regularly watch the BBC and read English newspapers. They followed closely the referendum campaign even though they refrained from participating as requested by the UK government at the time. They do understand well how British politics works and know a bluff when they see one. In contrast, British elites, except for the exceptional diplomatic service, are not particularly well-informed about European domestic politics in comparison to US politics. They tend to think all that is required is to persuade Germany, over-estimating the country’s power within the EU institutions, its willingness to ignore smaller country’s interests as well as the laws and informal norms that hold the EU together.

So how was the speech perceived? While some leaders (such as EU Council President Tusk) welcomed a greater sense of realism of what was going to be possible given the chosen priorities and the aspirations to continue to be ‘reliable partners, willing allies and close friends’, other parts were not well received by the relevant European audiences: First, the attempt to interpret away inconvenient facts about the driving forces behind the “voting behaviour” of a significant proportion of the 52 percent. Few of the relevant European audiences who followed the effective use of mobilising immigration fears against EU membership will have bought the argument that Brexit voters were primarily motivated by a desire to ‘to build a truly Global Britain’ and that there was no desire to “become more distant to you, our friends and neighbours’ after a widely reported rise of xenophobic incidents against EU citizens currently living in the UK. The anti-globalisation and free trade sentiment expressed in other quarters does not sit easily with the internationalist and free trade vision either. Many outside observers will also doubt May’s claim that voters made the choice with their “eyes wide open” given the statements made by the “leave campaign” about 350 million pounds extra for the NHS due to saved EU contributions or, more significantly, the caricature of EU institutions as undemocratic, not listening to British interests and with powers so vast they amount to “foreign rule”.

By far the most counter-productive passage of the speech was the hardly veiled threat of using corporate tax rates and deregulation as instruments of gaining competitive advantage and attracting business to the UK in the case of a punitive deal. This passage was partly seen as anticipatory blame-shifting given that the same argument was advanced by “leave-campaigners” for why the UK ‘can have its cake and eat it’. The message was that if the EU-27 do not provide Britain with the deal it wants, they must be acting irrationally and punitively, rather than just following through with the stance they have taken before or simply protecting their own interests in keeping club membership sufficiently attractive. More importantly, these threats are likely to increase the resolve of the EU-27 to stay united and follow through on what they have said before. It may be worth recalling that the last country that found itself in a comparable position was Greece, which managed to unify the diverse Eurozone governments against itself when leading Greek politicians accused EU finance ministers of torturing the country and threatened to bring about the collapse of the Eurozone, to flood Europe with migrants, and to undermine EU policies vis-à-vis Russia. We know what happened next.

The perception of the speech and the wider approach it signals matters because Britain is about to enter a negotiation process that reverses the advantageous position Britain had over decades when entering major negotiations. When discussing normal legislation but especially with Treaty changes, member states have a strong interest in finding a solution that can be “sold” domestically to publics and parliaments. Every country need to have a “domestic win” and this is what these long summits nights are about. Britain often managed to achieve exceptional flexibility and advantageous treatment in comparison to other member states, partly because of the significant contribution it made to problem-solving in various policy fields, but also because it could point to the greater difficulty of getting European “deals” past a Eurosceptic wing of the MPs and large sections of the press. Far from being mistreated, Britain had a better position than most EU members.

David Cameron’s re-negotiation prior to launching the referendum was perceived to be as just the latest manifestation of British cherry-pecking and blackmailing at a time when Europe was faced with the Eurozone and refugee crises – the “deal” achieved, while dismissed at home as insignificant and showing insufficient “flexibility” as May suggested in her speech, was already a deal too far for many European governments and at the very limit of what could be achieved without Treaty change. Many felt that British politicians had increasingly ceased to act as a “friend” to other Europeans to use Theresa May’s terminology and expectation towards the EU-27. We should recall that David Cameron attempted to veto the fiscal contract to save the Eurozone in 2011, the UK largely absenting itself from the management of the Ukraine crisis in 2013/2014, and showed hardly any solidarity when it came to the unprecedented surge in refugees in 2015. The reality is therefore that Britain is going into the negotiations with hardly any good-will to count on and in many quarters substantial resentment that has accumulated over many years, reaching back to Gordon Brown’s lectures of fellow finance ministers about sound economic policy.

A major and public clash thus appear inevitable in the talks as one of the first demands will be for Britain to pay its multi-billion Euro dues for the pensions of its British civil servants in EU institutions and the budgetary commitments it decided on. If the example of Greece is any guidance, we can expect negotiation positions to be instantly leaked and both Britain and the EU-27 will struggle to resist the temptation to justify and accuse. The Prime Minister is acutely aware of this risk coming from media scrutiny, but will find it difficult to explain to the Brexit supporting press at home the necessary compromises.

Of course, Britain can simply leave and renege on its commitments and obligations if faced with a deal it finds unpalatable. However, the EU-27 can live with the consequences of a cliff-edge on WTO terms, even though it will be economically costly. In contrast to the argument made by the PM, I doubt that Britain can politically live with the relatively much higher costs and herein lies the true dilemma for the government. By offering a vote on the deal in her speech, the PM has de-facto offered parliament an avenue for staying-in the EU. If there is a majority against whatever the EU decides to offer the UK, the alternative is not simply accepting the deal or crashing out with no deal. Despite the tactically motivated position taken by the parties in the High Court and Supreme Court, it is highly probably that Britain can revoke its intention to leave in the same ways as it has decided to trigger article 50. A statement to this effect has already been made by European Council President Tusk. As article 50 is silent on revocation, the European Court of Justice if called-upon to interpret will not want the responsibility for throwing a full member out, and politically most EU member states will be happy to see the UK changing its mind after all the upheaval. Article 50 can be revoked as long as it represents a genuine change of heart, rather than for vexatious reasons such as stopping and restarting the two year clock. If in late 2018 or early 2019 when the deal is on the table, too many people are unhappy, Brexit may still prove undeliverable. So what will motivate the EU-27 to give Britain an easy way out? The only way in which Britain can achieve success in the negotiation is by showing in words and deeds that it actually is the “friend” it wants to be in the future and works on rebuilding the goodwill that it has lost over many years. It should also refrain from harming the relationship further by using its powers to veto new European initiatives by the EU-27 in areas such as defence cooperation. Unfortunately, this appears a distinctly unlikely prospect given the signals from speech as well as the pressures of the long-standing leavers in parliament and the “clean-Brexit” supporting press.

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