The European Council is one of the most important institutions within the EU framework. It is a summit body bringing together the heads of government of all the 28 EU member states. The leaders meet in Brussels several times a year to discuss the big issues the Union faces and set its general direction. Naturally, with the UK leaving the EU in March 2019 and the negotiations connected to that in full swing, Brexit is high on the agenda. After the unexpected win of the Leave campaign in the Brexit referendum in June 2016, the position taken by the European leaders was that while the British decision is accepted, the UK outside of the EU will not be able to enjoy the same benefits as a member state.
This relates in particular to the Single Market, a set of principles which assure the free movement of goods, services, capital, and people. While the UK takes a great advantage of the first three, it would like to do away with the last. The other big issue is money; the UK already receives a rebate (discount) on its contributions to the EU budget that are calculated based on country’s economic performance. Many in the UK, however, think that any money sent to Brussels is too much. The European Commission, on the other hand, demands that Britain pays all the agreed budget contributions, even beyond 2019, and other costs associated with the withdrawal from the EU such as relocating European agencies from London.
The European leaders agreed that Brexit talks should be sequenced with the discussion about the withdrawal, including the money UK will pay, preceding the discussion about future trading relationships. While the EU 27 member states have stood united on this, the political establishment in the UK is deeply divided. Since the Prime Minister’s own party holds fundamentally different views on what Brexit should look like, the negotiations put Theresa May in a difficult position with little space to meet Europe’s demands.
The duty of the European Council is now to evaluate whether sufficient progress has been made to progress to the second stage of negotiations. However, with talks making little progress recently, the questions need to be asked where the whole process is heading. Is the no deal the most likely scenario now? While Europe stands united at the moment, if the situation deteriorates, cracks may appear. There are countries like the Netherlands or Denmark who would find it harder to cut the ties with Britain than others. And what will the Eurosceptic governments of Hungary and Poland make of the tough approach of Brussels in these negotiations knowing they might well be next on the receiving end? The Franco-German engine of the EU stands firmly behind hard-line approach to the negotiations, but could a power re-alignment be on the way?