Since the referendum, we in Britain have tended to talk about “the EU” as one monolithic negotiating outfit in the forthcoming Brexit talks. “The EU” won’t accept free trade without free movement, “the EU” has more to lose than us from tariff barriers, and so on.
It’s easy to forget that the people we will be dealing with are many and varied – and the faces and balance of power among them could change at various points in the process.
At the most fundamental, we’ll see two broad groups: the dogmatists and the pragmatists.
The dogmatists will parade the Union’s articles of faith as sacrosanct – no compromise on the four freedoms, even though most free trade in the world happens without free movement of people, continued authority for the ECJ over Britain’s affairs if it strikes any kind of deal, ever closer union as a sacred cow, and so on. This group is dominated by the senior figures in the EU institutions, particularly the Commission, thanks to the nature of their jobs and the fact that they don’t have to be accountable to the voters whose businesses and jobs they might ruin by their dogmatism.
They do have some allies beyond the EU’s capital, as today’s reports of the Maltese government demanding the ECJ retain legal authority into the 2020s demonstrates, though their commitment to the integrationist dream tends to be more patchy and somewhat softer than that of people whose entire lives are dedicated to the cause.
The pragmatists are less well-organised, and often conflicted over the ongoing crisis of a political project in which they, too, believe, but they have different priorities. They might well like the four freedoms, the ECJ and ever closer union, but either from principle or due to the practicalities of seeking election they would be alarmed at the prospect of trade barriers being erected to punish Britain’s disobedience. They are more likely to reside in the parliaments and governments of member states, and will find it harder to get organised due to not working on the same corridors, unlike the bulk of the dogmatists. Some of them will disappear and be replaced through national elections later this year, too, making any co-ordinated action to defend their self-interest rather more difficult.
At the moment, the build-up to the Brexit negotiation is dominated by dogmatists. We hear pronouncements from Commissioners, or from Guy Verhofstadt, and are prone – understandably, though mistakenly – to take them as carved in stone representations of what “the EU” intends toward us. It would be a mistake to copy them down as authoritative and immovable, though. Such people no doubt have a part to play in the process, but they don’t pay the EU’s bills or give it any of its tattered legitimacy. The people who do – the member states – do not all feel quite so dreamy about “the European ideal” or so hard-edged about the need to maintain its purity of essence at any cost. Their voters certainly aren’t all willing to lay down their livelihoods for Brussels.
It isn’t hard to imagine the Brexit talks taking two phases. The first, in which the dogmatists lead in Brussels, aided by having a fixed position and a close, stable working relationship. And the second, in which the pragmatists, slower to start but ultimately more powerful, tap the Commission and others on the shoulder and say “Our voters won’t let us pay the price of your dogma.” A British strategy has to take into account the fact that the people we are talking to do not all have the same goals.