Why the EU and UK can’t understand each other


They say that the chances of a no-deal Brexit are rising. If there is one thing that these Brexit negotiations show it is the fundamental differences in governance philosophy between Britain and continental Europe. It is one reason why the UK has never been comfortable in the European Union.

The UK’s tradition of common law and the lack of a written constitution reflect the country’s preference for practical pragmatism based on broad principles and adaptation to the circumstances of the moment – rather than the codified, rules-based mentality in Europe that originated from the Napoleonic code.

Throughout the negotiation, it has felt like the two sides were on different planets. The UK government always believed that a pragmatic solution would eventually emerge. It’s in nobody’s interest to have a no-deal Brexit. Therefore a deal would be done – somehow, some time. Probably at the eleventh hour.

Barnier and his colleagues, on the other hand, bind themselves by the written rules and treaties. Every question that arises has to be checked against the relevant rules. If proposals don’t fit the rules, then they cannot be implemented.

This has led to frustration on both sides. The UK sees the European approach as rigid and inflexible. Some believe that the EU is being pedantic, bloody minded, unhelpful and, according to some, vindictive.

The EU, on the other hand, cannot understand how the UK can possibly expect a deal that does not follow the letter of the rules. To them, the UK approach looks like irresponsible seat-of-the-pants stuff.

British civil servants in Brussels who understand both sides and have tried to explain these differences to the UK government have been summarily dismissed for having gone native.

The UK and the rest of the EU countries have lived together for over 40 years. Yet this fundamental difference in attitude and approach persists. And, remarkably, neither side empathizes with the other.

If a deal is to be done, each side will have to adapt. The UK needs to work within the rules and explore the flexibility that may exist in their interpretation. The EU needs to recognize, as it has in previous unusual situations, that rules cannot be developed to predict every conceivable situation. Eventually some kind of political compromise that stretches the rules to their limit will be necessary.

At the moment, the negotiations feel like some Babylonian mess where nobody is even speaking the same language. Let’s hope that in the few remaining months things might change.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.

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