The Brexit Breakdown: The EU’s frustrations and negotiations

 (An edited overlay of a photo of Tusk, Merkel and Juncker, and the EU/UK flags / Wikimedia commons /UK/EU flag) 

In the last Brexit Breakdown article the UK’s summer, full of heated Brexit debates, was discussed. Instead of focussing on the UK again this article will look at the EU’s role in Brexit.

While EU leaders grumbled on the side-lines of the ongoing Brexit mess this summer, the EU’s negotiators have kept working. The EU has so far been able to stick firmly to their principles and presented a united front during negotiations. This article will look closely at the EU’s negotiation strategies, and why they have been so successful. Irregardless of what happens in the upcoming days – whether there is a no-deal or another extension – the next few years will still be all about negotiating for the EU and UK because the talks about future trade relations have not even started yet. As Dutch Parliamentarian Anne Mulder put in a Dutch podcast about Brexit “these [current Brexit negotiations] should have be the easiest part, it only really starts after this.”. It is therefore interesting to get a better understanding of the EU’s negotiation strategy over the past years, from overcoming frustration to the UK’s amputation.

First, let’s quickly look at the turbulent summer that the EU has had – and not just because of Brexit- the EU has been dealing with its share of internal troubles as well. The European Elections in May of this year left the European Parliament more divided than ever and the choice of new Commission President has been a very controversial struggle.

There is also a growing call to reform the European Union. French President Emanuel Macron, who already passionately advocated for reforms before the European Elections, says the time to work towards such changes is now. However, to be able to focus on possible reforms and on the power struggle within the Parliament, dealing with the ongoing Brexit drama is the very least thing the EU wants.


Therefore, many European leaders have been getting increasingly more annoyed with the UK and its new government this summer. Especially because it seemed like Johnson did not truly want another deal and he was just ‘running down the clock’ until a no-deal Brexit happened. A secretary from Johnson’s cabinet, Amber Rudd, even quit her job because she said that the government did not partake in any formal negotiations. Johnson’s apparent lack of interest in striking a new deal threatened the peace on the Irish border and could be very damaging to the economy if it resulted in a no-deal. Alternatively, an extension would mean even more months in which the EU agenda would be set around Brexit instead of other urgent issues. In other words: both are very frustrating prospects.

Some within the EU struggled to conceal this frustration, and that resulted in some embarrassing incidents with Johnson over the summer. For example, when Johnson visited Luxembourg for a working lunch with the European Commission’s President Juncker, the Prime Minister of Luxembourg Xavier Bettel humiliated Johnson at the planned press conference. A big group of protesters waited for Johnson outside the building and because Johnson did not want to hold the planned press conference so near the protesters he decided to leave. Prime minister Bettel, however, happily waved to the crowds and defended their right to demonstrate, after which he mocked Johnson for suggesting that progress was being made in the negotiations.

Johnson’s controversial prorogation and his inflammatory language was also a source of frustration in Brussels. In September Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, said that Johnson’s behaviour limited the change of a Brexit deal because the polarisation in the UK parliament would make it even harder to get any legislation passed. The past few days have proven that Barnier was right, as Johnson failed to unite parliament last Saturday and he did not get the support for the new Brexit deal.

Michel Barnier, Credit: CC-BY-4.0: © European Union 2019
Source: EP (

Unlike the British parliament, the remaining 27 members of the EU have managed to unite around Brexit, even despite their frustrations. Presenting a ‘united front’ has been one of their most important strategies during the negotiations. Even before the Brexit vote took place in 2016, the president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, talked to every EU leader to make a joint response to the outcome of the referendum. In addition to being unified the EU was thus also highly prepared for Brexit, another secret to their success in the negations.

Over the course of the negotiations the EU has not given in on any of the principles that they decided on before the referendum. The most important of these principles are, firstly, safeguarding the peace in Ireland by preventing a border on the island. Secondly, the EU wants to safeguard . The UK can still be part of this market if they want to, but then they will have to except the free movement of goods, capital, services and people as well, there can be no cherry-picking. Thirdly, the UK must honour the financial commitments it made to the EU before the referendum. All the EU’s negotiations have been led by Barnier, and all member states have agreed not to negotiate with the UK individually.

All of this is in stark contrast to what happened in the UK. In London nobody was prepared for the outcome of the referendum, then prime minister David Cameron forbade officials to prepare for a Leave vote. Since Cameron resigned as prime minister, the morning after the vote, the UK has had two different prime ministers and three different Chief UK Brexit negotiators, all with their own style and wishes.

The unpreparedness and disunity in the UK led to complete chaos and it distracted everybody from what the EU was doing. While nobody was looking, the EU prepared and united so that Brexit would not be a negotiation, but an “amputation”. It will be very interesting to see if the EU manages to remain so united during future trade negotiations, or if the UK manages to come together again and ‘take back control’ of the negotiations.

If you want to know exactly how much time is left before the Halloween Brexit deadline you can check out this live countdown. Until then, keep an eye out for next editions of The Brexit Breakdown on The Perspective Webzine.

Kerime van Opijnen

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