The UK’s Brexit concessions show that the EU has taken back control

Britain’s compromises on the Irish border, the 50bn divorce bill and trade talks expose the weakness of its negotiating hand. 

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

There is a distinct pattern to the Brexit talks: what the EU wants, the EU (eventually) gets. After months of prevarication, the UK has proposed that Northern Ireland maintain "regulatory alignment" with the Republic in order to prevent the return of a hard border (to the consternation of the DUP). "It is a matter of [Britain] facing reality," observed Philippe Lamberts, the leader of the European Greens, following a meeting with Jean-Claude Juncker.

The week before, the UK faced reality over its divorce bill. Having previously dismissed reports of a 50bn payment as "nonsense, completely wrong" (in the words of Brexit Secretary David Davis) and told the EU to "go whistle" (Boris Johnson), Britain has now accepted precisely this sum. In defiance of her earlier speeches, Theresa May has also agreed that the European Court of Justice will maintain oversight of EU citizens' rights even after the planned two-year transition period. 

Had the Brexiteers' original boasts been fulfilled, of course, Britain would now be on its way to agreeing a new trade deal with the EU. David Davis promised a summer-long row over the sequencing of the talks - and capitulated on the first day. In hope of merely opening trade negotiations with Europe, Britain has had to make multiple concessions. Though International Trade Secretary Liam Fox boasted that a new agreement with the EU would be "one of the easiest in human history", even he has accepted a two-year period from March 2019 during which, to coin a phrase, nothing will change. 

As is now emphatically clear, the EU27 and the UK are not equal partners. Though the British government maintains that "no deal is better than a bad deal", it knows that it would pay a far heavier price than Brussels. 

Failure to reach an agreement would deprive the EU of Britain’s budget contributions but, spread across the other 27 member states, each country would have to contribute just 0.1 per cent of GDP more a year. By contrast, though the UK would save 0.4 per cent of GDP, economists estimate no deal would lead to a loss of between 3 and 6 per cent of GDP. With good reason, the only country that currently trades with the rest of the globe under World Trade Organisation rules is Mauritania.

As Britain is now learning to its cost, the EU's divorce proceedings are designed to maximise its control. The withdrawal deal that Britain reaches must be approved by at least 72 per cent of member states, representing 65 per cent of the EU’s population. Once Article 50 has been triggered, the two-year deadline for leaving can only be extended by unanimous agreement. Even the much-maligned European Parliament has been guaranteed a vote on the final deal.

The great irony of Brexit is that never before has Europe had greater power over Britain's fate. And all this for a deal that, whatever its terms, will be inferior to the UK's present membership. If 2016 was the year that Britain voted to "take back control", 2017 was the year that the EU did. 

George Eaton is deputy editor of the New Statesman.