A Rather Uncreative Brexit Process

The so-called Brussels bubble is prolific when it comes to introducing new expressions into our written and spoken language. Brexit is no exception. Cut-off date, sufficient progress, soft/hard Brexit, divorce bill, Canada-plus-plus-plus are just a few of the terms we have heard and read about in official documents, speeches and media articles about the negotiations, which are shaping our thinking on the matter. But there is one word (or rather, one adjective) used in relation to the Brexit process, that is particularly interesting: “Creative.”

At a meeting with European Council President Donald Tusk, UK Prime Minister Theresa May recently stated that Brexit could be a success if the two parties were “creative.” Mr. Tusk repeated the term when it was his turn to wish for the best. He affirmed that the EU would seek “flexible and creative solutions” to avoid a hard border with Ireland. In short, the term seems to be the official way to say that the matter is so complicated that, for negotiations to succeed, EU and UK officials need to forget about how things are done in the normal political ecosystem and start from scratch.

The problem is that so far there has been no creativity whatsoever demonstrated in the Brexit negotiations and this has clearly been to the EU’s advantage. Given the unprecedented nature of the Brexit process, this is rather surprising. It should be difficult not to be creative while activating an Article of a Treaty which nobody in the history of the EU ever thought would be used.

Despite this, the five paragraphs of Article 50 are being applied in the most rigorous way, as is the concept of the indivisibility of the Single Market and its four freedoms. The Brussels playbook soon transformed the discussion around Brexit into multiple deadlines and monthly rounds of negotiating meetings with little opportunity for hesitation or acceleration. According to a set timeline, the Commission published documents outlining its approach on the matter before the UK could make any meaningful move.

This was a success for the EU. European officials are trained to make negotiations of any kind progress against all odds and they applied their skills, while a less prepared UK government thought the process could be creative and leave space for reflection, strategy and changes of mind. The only change of mind EU officials are ready to greet with open arms is a decision not to get to the bottom of Brexit. Again, we see only rigid binary thinking: yes or no; in or out.

If nothing changes, this approach will become more evident in the second phase of talks (due to start soon after the EU Council adopts the latest Commission’s negotiating directives on 29 January) and even more so in March, when official discussions will start on the EU-UK future relationship. One might think that outlining this relationship can only be done by going through a very creative process. After all, there is no third country in the world closer to the EU in terms of culture, norms and decision-making processes than the UK. Designing the way this country will deal with the EU after it leaves is a historic moment and surely demands as much flexibility as possible.

EU Future Relationship

Instead, the opposite is happening. In the last few weeks, the Commission’s way of warning the UK that the upcoming second phase of the Brexit talks could only go in a few selected directions was through slides published on their website. The slide shown here demonstrates a few models of EU relationship with third countries. The EU-UK relationship is clearly expected to fall into one of these buckets, according to the red lines which the country decides to draw. Should the UK want to apply too many restrictions to this relationship, the outcome will be a no deal.

The truth is that, thanks to this approach, the EU has been doing well in these negotiations. It is dictating the rules of the game. It is making clear that one can either join the club and have certain rights and obligations, or be out it. The EU is defending a construction that was built over decades by committed leaders.

What is also true is that the EU construction has sometimes been called into question (with the Brexit vote being the latest and most resounding example) because, over the years, EU citizens sensed the rigidity of the EU system and had doubts as to whether such an approach was fair (e.g. during the Greek crisis). Applying this inflexible thinking to such a historic process could well end up confirming Brussels’ reputation as a land of bureaucrats.

Creativity may not have been the best approach during the first phase of Brexit negotiations, when the rights of EU and UK citizens were at stake, but it is definitely something to hope for in the upcoming second phase of talks.