Why Europe has differences over Brexit

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Why Europe has differences over Brexit

European Council President Donald Tusk announced on Friday that the EU has agreed a deal on the first phase of Brexit divorce talks with the UK. The negotiations, which will move in 2018 into the new round, focused on the future UK-EU relationship, have been noteworthy for the relative discipline of the EU-27 and divisions within the British government.
Yet while Brussels and the EU-27 depict themselves as unified, each state has distinctive political, economic and social interests that inform its stance on Brexit. Their positions, in practice, vary according to factors such as trade ties and patterns of migration with the UK, domestic election pressures, and levels of Euroskeptical support within their populaces.
The divergent and complex positions of EU states thus range from the UK’s fellow non-euro zone member Sweden, whose political and economic interests are likely to be broadly aligned with UK positions, to countries that have more complicated postures, including France.
France has long had a complex and contradictory relationship with the UK in the context of EU affairs. President Emmanuel Macron believes Brexit to be an act of political vandalism to the continent, and has been accused by UK ministers of holding up progress in negotiations this year.
Macron’s Brexit positioning, including his robust stance on future UK access to the European Single Market (ESM), is reinforced by broader French plans to tout Paris as a competing financial center to London, which began in earnest under the presidency of Francois Hollande.
This saw former Finance Minister Michel Sapin and Hollande’s Brexit Special Envoy Christian Noyer, former Bank of France governor, openly promoting Paris to key banks. This has continued under Macron, and only last month he hailed the decision to relocate the European Banking Agency (EBA) to Paris from London as “recognition of France’s attractiveness and European commitment.”
French officials hope that the EBA’s relocation will help bring many thousands of UK banking jobs to the French capital, which post-Brexit is competing with other financial centers, including Frankfurt, for UK banking jobs. Many on the continent say London cannot now remain the main Euro-denominated financial clearing center. 
During this year’s presidential election campaign, Macron said he will seek to renegotiate the 2003 Les Touquet migration agreement. This allows the UK to operate border controls in France, and has kept thousands of migrants heading for Britain on the French side of the channel.
While France has a particularly robust stance on Brexit, it is far from alone in having a highly bespoke stance on the issue. Take the example of Spain, the euro zone’s fourth-largest economy, which benefits economically from around 300,000 British citizens residing in the country, and has a significant trade deficit with the UK. Other things being equal, this favors softer negotiating positions on Brexit.

The distinctive interests of EU states are adding to the complexity of Brexit negotiations. As Brussels seeks unified EU stances under the leadership of chief negotiator Michel Barnier, UK officials will continue bilaterally to try to shape positions of countries that could be key allies or foes, including France, Spain and Poland.

Andrew Hammond

Yet this picture is complicated by other factors, including Gibraltar’s future. While Spanish Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis has hinted that Madrid will not veto a final Brexit deal over Gibraltar, it has invited the British government to negotiations on the UK overseas territory on the southern Spanish coast, including proposals for joint sovereignty.
The fact that Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy may yet play hardball in Brexit negotiations on this issue is reflected in his reported remarks to his British counterpart Theresa May in October 2016 that such a joint-sovereignty model will, under a hard Brexit scenario of the UK leaving the ESM and European Customs Union, be the only way for Gibraltar to secure continued access to the ESM, which is key for its economy.
The scope for tension between Madrid and London is underlined by the fact that Gibraltar itself remains strongly opposed to enhanced political ties with Spain. UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has doubled-down on this with his own “completely implacable, marmoreal and rocklike resistance” to Spain’s joint-sovereignty proposals.
Madrid’s negotiating position toward Brexit is also shaped by the secessionist threat from Catalonia and the Basque country. Spain strongly opposed Scotland’s independence in the 2014 referendum, and will seek to scotch any attempts by it, and/or Northern Ireland and Wales, to try to secure special status in the EU post-Brexit.
In Eastern Europe, Poland’s negotiating stance is heavily informed by its seeking of guarantees that the future rights of the approximately 850,000 Polish-born residents in the UK will be comparable, if not identical, post-Brexit as before. Indeed, Poland is now the most common non-UK country of birth for people across the nation.
For added leverage, Poland is lobbying as part of the Visegrad group, which also comprises Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Collectively there are more than a million Visegrad nationals in the UK, and while the group does not have a “qualified majority” in Brussels to veto a Brexit deal, it may seek a wider, blocking coalition if its citizenry’s rights to live and work across the nation are not enshrined.
Taken overall, the distinctive interests of EU states are adding to the complexity of Brexit negotiations. As Brussels seeks unified EU stances under the leadership of chief negotiator Michel Barnier, UK officials will continue bilaterally to try to shape positions of countries that could be key allies or foes, including France, Spain and Poland.
• Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.
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