On June 23, 2016, the British public voted in favor of the United Kingdom (UK) leaving the European Union (EU). The UK has had an antagonistic relationship with the EU since joining in 1973, with London opting out of certain key components of European integration, like the Schengen Area and the eurozone. In an effort to silence British concerns with an already strained relationship, former Prime Minister David Cameron opted to hold a referendum to allow British citizens to decide the UK’s future with the EU. The British exit from the EU, or Brexit, has caused nervousness throughout both the UK and the larger union, bringing the future of the UK and the EU into question. On March 29, Prime Minister Theresa May invoked Article 50, the provision of the Treaty of the EU which starts the divorce talks. The negotiations have focused on the “Brexit Bill,” citizens’ rights, the Irish border, and the post-Brexit relationship between the UK and the EU. So far, negotiations have been tense, with the EU frustrated over the UK’s lack of clarity surrounding Brexit and the UK dissatisfied that the EU is unwilling to discuss the future relationship, especially trade, in tandem with the other issues. Thus, Brexit negotiations are at a deadlock.
The first issue is the “Brexit Bill,” setting how much the UK owes to the EU upon its exit. Brussels maintains that the UK must continue contributing to the EU budget even after it leaves. The UK is aware and amenable that it has to pay a fee, promising to fulfill its financial commitments. However, neither side can agree on a final figure. One source reported that Prime Minister May was willing to pay 40 billion euros; however, the EU places the bill closer to 60-100 billion euros.
A second issue is citizens’ rights. The EU has labeled its citizens’ rights has the “first priority,” claiming that the three million EU citizens in the UK maintain their rights in the post-Brexit climate. The EU remains adamant that the European Court of Justice (ECJ) “keeps overseeing the rights granted to EU citizens” after Brexit. This is unacceptable to the British because that would allow the ECJ jurisdiction over EU nationals who remain in the UK. This is an outcome the British hoped to avoid as it would allow the ECJ continued jurisdiction over the UK law. One of the main reasons for the Brexit vote was a fear of losing sovereignty to Brussels, and allowing the ECJ to maintain legal authority over EU nationals still in the UK would essentially continue limits on British sovereignty.
Another sensitive issue is the future of the Irish-Northern Ireland border. Ireland will remain an EU member state while Northern Ireland, a part of the UK, will no longer be part of the union. This introduces a complication on the future of the border. Both sides want to keep the border free of as many obstacles as possible, opting not to return to a “hard border,” but the UK’s desire to leave the EU customs union makes that nearly impossible. The UK seeks to maintain a “frictionless” flow of goods with the EU and do nothing to upset the fragile peace process which brought peace between the warring parties in Northern Ireland 25 years ago; however, a point of curiosity is that part of the logic behind the Brexit vote was for the UK to regain control of its border. This also confused EU leaders as the UK has stated it will no longer take part in the single market or customs union.
Perhaps the most contentious issue is prioritizing the future relationship between the UK and the EU. The UK offered to negotiate the divorce and trade deal simultaneously while the EU strongly disagreed. The EU has stood its ground, insisting “no agreement on a future trade deal can be finalized until the UK has actually left the EU.” To the UK, coming to an agreement on trade and its future relationship with the EU is of primary concern and has consumed much of the government’s attention. However, to the EU, Brexit is a “second- or third-order issue.” The British government is gunning for a trade deal to be secured before it leaves the EU. Brexit Secretary David Davis described the timetable as more than possible as long as there is “political will.” But the remaining 27 EU members are not in as big of a hurry, leaving doubt that such a quick trade deal is feasible. As the EU Chief Negotiator, Michel Barnier, suggested, “relations with a Britain outside the bloc could never be better than with a member state.” Mr. Barnier’s point was that the EU is not going to allow Britain to drive the negotiations because it wants to deter other EU countries from leaving. Thus, trade remains the most challenging issue in Brexit negotiations.
As the UK and EU approach each round of negotiations, the division between Brussels and London remains strikingly clear. Brexit has become an all-consuming issue for London while the other EU capitals are much less invested and more concerned about the myriad of other challenges facing the union’s future. The EU must focus on the remaining 27 EU countries and on maintaining solidarity. On the other side of the negotiating table, the lack of cohesion in the British government remains a large obstacle to securing an ideal agreement with the EU. With both sides holding differing opinions, goals, and priorities in the negotiations, it remains to be seen if the UK and the EU can come to any agreement at all.