Malign influence, lame duck or honest broker? The UK’s role in Europe during the Brexit negotiations


The UK will remain a full member of the EU until withdrawal negotiations are completed. In this post Nick Wright explores the roles that Britain might play in EU decision making once Article 50 has been triggered. He considers three possibilities – malign influence, lame duck and honest broker – and concludes that at the moment the second seems most likely, although elements of the other two may also be seen along the way.

Britain remains a full member of the EU until the completion of withdrawal negotiations. It is important to re-state this obvious point because, regardless of the Brexit process, the EU continues to function and therefore the UK continues to have a say (and a vote) on all EU decision-making via the Council of Ministers. The question then is how that will work: how will the dynamics of ‘normal life’ in the Council interact with the Brexit process?

The Council, which agrees all EU legislation in conjunction with the European Parliament, is not a single, unitary body. It exists in a number of ministerial formations covering the range of policy areas dealt with at EU level and is dependent on a complex sub-structure: most policy is decided at the ambassadorial level in the two committees of the Permanent Representatives (Corepers I & II) and the Political and Security Committee. Supporting these are dozens of working parties and technical groups which deal with specific policy questions, ranging from highly technical regulations relating to the Single Market to the implementation of sanctions against Russia.

All member states are represented and involved in continuous negotiations and decision-making across all issues and at every level, and the UK is no exception.

So what happens once Article 50 is triggered? Will the UK still try to influence Council decision-making at all levels? Will it be able to, given the pressure the Brexit negotiations will place on its administrative and diplomatic resources? And how will the EU-27 respond to British efforts to continue to play a role? To help us think about these questions, three simple scenarios are mapped out below.

Scenario #1: malign influence

The possibility of keeping the Brexit negotiations separate from ongoing Council business seems fanciful. Even though the UK will be negotiating primarily with the Commission’s Brexit team led by Michel Barnier, it is the Council that agrees and supervises the execution of the negotiating mandate. Both sides may see potential for linkages, and for the UK the possibility of using its voice and voting weight in the Council to press for concessions in the negotiations may become appealing, particularly if the latter become difficult.

A general strategy of obstructionism is unlikely to work. However, the UK may seek to remind its interlocutors on occasion of its preparedness and ability to play hard ball. Given the existing cleavages within the Council on a range of issues, including the Eurozone crisis and even the future of integration itself, the UK may see opportunities to apply pressure.

Such a strategy in not without risks, though. Whatever the possible short-term gains, time is not on the British side. The closer we get to the two-year Article 50 ‘guillotine’ – which must factor in time for European Parliamentary approval – the less effective this approach.

Scenario #2: lame duck

If the Brexit negotiations become increasingly difficult and bogged-down, both Britain’s interest in and capacity to influence ongoing discussions on other policy matters will diminish.

Domestically, Britain’s EU expertise and resources have been concentrated in the newly-established Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU). DExEU has therefore assumed from the Cabinet Office the responsibilities for co-ordinating all Britain’s EU policy inputs. However, given its primary objective is British withdrawal, this will be the focus of its limited resources, meaning the EU’s ordinary day-to-day business may have to take a back seat. If the ability of UK officials to maintain involvement is reduced, their EU counterparts will see them as increasingly marginalised.

Under this scenario, the UK will become semi-isolated, increasingly uninterested in engaging in discussion and negotiation on issues that will be perceived as being of limited relevance once it has exited.

Scenario #3: honest broker

The most optimistic of the three scenarios is that the UK will seek to play a constructively neutral role within the Council, foreshadowing a positive post-Brexit partnership with the EU. Recognising it has a clear long-term interest in the EU’s continuing stability and integrity, Britain will work towards compromise and agreement in policy areas where it has a clear interest, such as developing the Digital Single Market. Moreover, a political view could be taken that a willingness to pursue constructive participation will bring benefits to the parallel exit negotiations.

While this scenario may seem far-fetched, it should be remembered that in terms of the process of Council decision-making, Britain enjoys a solid reputation for the quality of its officials, the clarity and coherence of its negotiating positions and its ability to craft compromises. It certainly has the capacity to play the role of honest broker, should it wish to.

There are obvious difficulties, though. First, any such approach would likely be predicated on the Brexit negotiations proceeding satisfactorily. Second, it would also entail a willingness on the part of the EU-27 to ‘permit’ Britain to play such a role. Third, it would require political leadership from London to ensure this happens.

Both sides have emphasised their desire to establish a constructive and effective post-Brexit relationship. While Britain may be known more for pragmatism than long-term vision, in this case the former serves the latter: the pragmatic approach might be to nurture and promote the post-Brexit relationship by playing a positive role in its final two years as a Council member.


Of the three scenarios, some form of the second currently seems most likely, although we may see elements of the other two along the way. The pressure on the UK to reach agreement will only increase as the negotiating clock runs down. Meanwhile, resource and capacity constraints increase the probability of semi-detachment from the EU’s day-to-day business as the UK prioritises the Brexit negotiations. Finally, the attitude of the EU-27 to their soon-to-be-former partner will be key. Within days of the referendum result in June, officials in Brussels were already talking in terms of the ‘EU-27 plus Britain’, emphasising that the psychological split has already begun.

While both sides hope for a smooth ‘divorce’, it will likely be difficult and at times acrimonious. It is difficult to imagine that this won’t spill over into the business of the Council.

This post was originally published on The UK in a Changing Europe and is re-posted with permission.

About the author

Dr Nick Wright is a Teaching Fellow in EU Politics at UCL. His research focuses on the consequences of Brexit for Whitehall and UK foreign policy, and he is currently writing a book on German, French and British engagement with the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy.

3 thoughts on “Malign influence, lame duck or honest broker? The UK’s role in Europe during the Brexit negotiations

  1. CLearly the UK needs another Great Reform Bill to remove universal suffrage. Itjust doesn’t work. Perhaps John Pedlar should appoint himself Lord Protector. Then he can announce his miraculous discovery of a form of governance that is superior to sovereign parliamentary democracy. No doubt the EU, which exists to reduce the nation state to mere colonies, would reward him with its presidency for life.

  2. The obvious flaw in all three options is that there is in fact no time limit or guillotine on Britain’s negotiations of a new deal with the EU. THe two year limit in Article 50 applies only to terms of withdrawal. TRying to negotiate a new deal in the same timescale is fantasy.
    THe sensible way for Britain to conduct itself in normal EU business is none of the three options given here. BRitain should say, perhaps in its Article 50 notice, that it will abstain from EU business that does not affect it in return for the EU agreeing opt-outs by U.K from policies, directives and regulations that it does not want to take into British government policy or British law.

  3. The imperative for Britain to play its role in a world threatened by Trump

    The whole of the UK – not just the ‘remainers’ Scotland and Northern Ireland – needs to recognise that its vital interest is to strengthen the EU not weaken it by quitting at this critical time when all previous certainties about US foreign policy are now in doubt under Trump. The EU and the West can’t count on the American umbrella any more.

    For the UK, foreign policy is now the key issue, not Brexit.

    All that is needed is for most of the MPs who voted ‘remain’ to find the courage and the patriotism to vote against Article 50 when the legislative vote comes up. But on 8 December the Commons, in a snap non-binding vote, Prime Minister May won by 461 to 89 a motion in favour of invoking Article 50 so irrevocably committing the UK to Brexit.

    On a recent visit to the UK (my diplomatic consultancy is based in France though I have been working since last November both in the UK and in continental Europe for ‘remain’) I found widespread fear of Leavers and their accusation that challenging the referendum result is to flout the ‘clear will of the British people’. This ‘mantra’ seems to have been accepted by most of the public and most MPs – only those 89 dared ‘come out’ for the UK’s true interests – and it is they who are condemned as unpatriotic!

    I found an altogether nasty, depressed, and bullying atmosphere that I have never known in Britain. This seems to be largely due not just to the UK media but also the international media accepting, no matter how reluctantly, that Brexit is inevitable. Therefore, in the absence of any co-ordinated opposition obliging media coverage, few know the argument about Britain’s place in the world and its duty to not to ditch its EU partners and allies when the West is under great threat. Indeed most of the UK press echoes arch Brexiteer Rupert Murdoch, daily feeding both public and MPs highly biased information in support of Brexit – as happened during the referendum campaign.

    So it is not surprising that according to some polls Mrs. May still has the backing of just over half of the public. If I lived in the UK and were not a foreign affairs professional, I would be taken in by the Brexiteering media. I would never have heard that ploughing on to Brexit would weaken the EU and the West and that therefore Britain should, on the contrary, be acting to support the EU – not endangering its very existence by leaving.

    If a majority of those MPs who voted for ‘remain’ on 30 June are to do so again and save the UK from being absorbed in the long and complex process of leaving the EU (and its alleged benefits that are far from clear) then there must be that co-ordinated opposition that will get the informed publicity essential needed not just for the public, but for those ‘remain’ MPs to vote against Article 50 to enable the UK to plat its role on the world stage in this ‘hour of maximum danger’.

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