Do we know more now about the likely shape of the Brexit deal since Prime Minister Theresa May’s speech last week? Going by what she said, the result will depend even less on what May wants and even more on what the rest of the EU will give her. It’s said that there are too many unknowns to figure out the positions of the 27 other EU members (EU27). But a little algebra might help. The fundamentals are simple enough to be described in three short equations, each of which gives us a clue about an eventual Deal UK (Duk).

Equation 1: Vm > VDuk > Vnfm

This states that the general value of Deal UK (VDuk) cannot be greater than the value of EU membership (Vm), but that it could be greater than the deals with non-former members (Vnfm) such as Norway and Canada. It would be absurd for Brussels to offer a deal more valuable than membership itself. This is not only about precedent and pour decourager les autres. Like any club managing “commons” the EU must protect itself against freeriding. The UK cannot, therefore, get a better deal now than David Cameron was granted last February. Concessions on free movement will need to cost enough in other areas to highlight the value of membership. The problem with the Brits as seen from Paris is that they are, well, too French – avoir le beurre, l’argent du beurre et les baisers de la fermiere (loosely translatable as wanting to have their cake and eat it, and also – politely put – to kiss the baker’s daughter).

Perhaps Duk ought to be better than deals granted to countries that have never been EU members. It would debase EU membership to treat the UK worse than countries which have never sat around the EU table. However, it is also conceivable that the UK might become so arrogant that no one cares about recognising its status as a former member or great power. The equation would then become: Vm > Vnfm> VDuk.

Equation 2: Duk = FI – CP 

Duk will likely allow the UK to opt-in to aspects of EU membership which are earmarked for “flexible integration” (FI), but the EU 27 will resist British attempts to cherry-pick (CP). For instance, it might be ok to selectively participate in EU research networks or defence procurement, but not to opt out of regional funds which help Europe’s poorest regions.

In the next few years, flexible integration will be key for the EU. If the EU is to survive, its policy and institutions must reflect what it has become: a continent-wide ensemble of heterogeneous states and economies which show little sign of convergence. But there is a fine line between such flexible integration and cherry picking. You want EU partners on board with an a la carte exit? Avoid idiosyncratic, ad-hoc demands and find arguments based on generalizable principles. 

Equation 3: Duk ≠ U+B

This equation states that Duk cannot amount to a unilateral British trade policy (U), or 27 bilateral deals pasted together (B).  With an EU based on the rule of law, there is precious little room for either. Hard Brexiters will need to curb their unilateralism as the first step to “independence”. Unilateral openness means little in a world where trade is underpinned by the mutual recognition of standards which are constantly and collectively updated, interpreted and litigated. Unilateralism can only work when it is a show of goodwill, as the UK could show towards the status of EU citizens in Britain. Similarly, bilateralism seems to be the cognitive frame of a foreign minister who threatens the Italians with an import ban on Prosecco. That is to misunderstand the logic of trade negotiations in the EU, which have been structured so you can no less cherry pick between countries than between issues. 

The more Britain is perceived as adopting what Europeans see as a transactional approach and ignoring the EU’s rules of the game, the less goodwill will remain in European capitals when the time comes to strike Deal UK. Why behave as if the country ha already unlearned the lessons of four decades of membership?

by Kalypso Nicolaïdis | 27.01.2017

The writer is Professor of International Relations, University of Oxford, and Director, Centre for International Studies, Department of Politics and International Relations

This is a shortened version of an article published in Oxford University News & Events and by the European Council on Foreign Relations

Edited by Michael Prest

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