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The EU’s Brexit Mistakes - Part I: Misguiding Britain

07 Mar 2018 - 11:52

Britain has made numerous mistakes over Brexit, but the European Union’s record also needs to be analysed. In the first of a three-part series, Tim Oliver looks at some of the things the EU has got wrong about Brexit.

For an organisation so often the focus of criticism, the EU has so far been largely applauded for its approach to Brexit. Compared to how it has handled the crises in the Eurozone, Schengen, or relations with Russia, on Brexit the EU has appeared united, focused, and well prepared.

Of course, the UK government and British Eurosceptics would be the first to disagree. But if the EU’s approach has received little by way of critique, that is largely because the focus has been on Britain’s dire handling of Brexit. David Cameron’s decision to call a vote has been the subject of much criticism. The referendum campaign and the longer-term approach of British politicians and decision makers to EU-membership have been the subject of much heated discussion.

Britain’s strategy for handling Brexit, or complete lack of, has been widely ridiculed. It has turned Britain into a country of lions misled by donkeys1 . Things have been so bad that some civil servants are reported to have outlined2 their concerns to ministers so as to ensure they had a defence in any post-Brexit inquiry into why things went wrong. British Eurosceptics will find few crumbs of comfort here to make up for Britain’s own failings.

That does not mean, however, that the EU’s own approach should be spared from critical analysis. As an unprecedented experience for the EU, Brexit needs to be examined from all angles. Before the referendum a taboo surrounded discussion of the idea and challenges of a member state withdrawing.

Britain’s strategy for handling Brexit, or complete lack of, has been widely ridiculed

As I will cover in the second post in this series, that taboo was a mistake. It would be a similar mistake to now think the EU is immune from criticism as to how it has handled Brexit. That comes with the caveat that because Brexit is an ongoing process, the full implications of the mistakes made by either side can only be truly assessed in hindsight. These posts are therefore offered as food for thought as the EU and UK come to terms with Brexit.

The EU’s mistakes on Brexit can be broken down into three groups: misleading Britain over its place in the EU; misinterpreting what Brexit means; and mishandling how Brexit has been negotiated. In the next two posts I will discuss the latter two, but in this post I outline an important starting point to how many people view the EU’s approach to Brexit.

Misguiding Britain
Whether the EU has been too harsh or too lenient towards the UK defines how many people view the mistakes the EU has made on Brexit.

Those supportive of the former, view the biggest mistake as the EU’s failure to adapt to keep as large and important a European state as the United Kingdom inside it. This line of thinking would see the UK-EU renegotiation that preceded the vote as a missed opportunity. This was especially so on free movement, a topic many elsewhere in the EU were concerned about. While there were concerns about opening the Pandora’s box of a treaty change, the refusal to contemplate change on free movement also reflected a deeper desire in Brussels to harmonise and centralise. Repeating ad nauseam that the four freedoms – free movement of goods, services, capital and labour – were indivisible, ignored that the degree of application of those freedoms can vary.

More broadly, the failure of the renegotiation – indeed, its very need – tells of how the EU has struggled to accept that some member states such as Britain would never join projects such as the Euro. Ideas of a multi-speed Europe or differentiated integration have been much spoken about and discussed, but to some extent they are still underpinned by an assumption that integration will move forward. That approach was bound to marginalise a member state such as the UK.

On the other hand, those who feel the EU was too lenient argue the mistake was in not being strict enough with the UK, allowing it to become the spoilt child of European integration. Britain is not the only member state that has been awkward, with a public uneasy at the pace of European integration, or to have secured opt-outs and special deals for itself. But Britain secured more than anyone else, and in doing so created an expectation amongst its decision makers and public that it could and would be treated differently and so could always ask for more. It was only a matter of time before Britain asked for more than a union of twenty eight member states could collectively agree to give.

The irrelevance of the renegotiation in the referendum campaign showed that point had been reached. The EU’s mistake was allowing such a situation to develop when it should long ago have made clear to Britain that it should put up or shut up: leave the EU or come to terms with the compromises inherent in any such union.

The above dichotomy not only defines what mistakes people think the EU made that helped lead to Brexit, but also influences how people view the EU’s interpretation and implementation of Brexit.


Tim Oliver
Senior Lecturer at Loughborough University London