The Long Slog Ahead: Britain and Brussels Negotiate the Divorce

The Long Slog Ahead: Britain and Brussels Negotiate the Divorce

The future, smaller EU could look very different from the one that has evolved over the past twenty years.

Brexit reinforces Germany’s status as Washington’s primary ally on all things European. As the dominant country in the Eurozone, Germany is already America’s main European partner in addressing the global economic crisis and in resolving the Ukraine conflict. Brexit will only reinforce this trend. Paris, meanwhile, has for the last few years emerged as a critical ally on defense and security issues in the Middle East, North Africa and the Sahel, showing itself more willing than London to undertake potentially risky military operations.

With the fourteenth TTIP round of negotiations between American and EU officials underway in Brussels as of July 11, one could almost believe that it was business as usual and that nothing really happened on June 23 that may derail the TTIP train. However, and despite EU Trade Commissioner Malmström’s comments that TTIP would survive Brexit, the trade deal that was already on shaky ground before the vote may well have been killed off. Brussels will be focused in the weeks and months to come on dealing with the economic and political fallout of Brexit and may lack the bandwidth to continue pursuing the TTIP talks. Even if it didn’t, it would need time to recalibrate its proposals to reflect the UK’s exit, just as the negotiations were supposed to be entering their endgame. David O’Sullivan, the EU’s ambassador to the United States, is still upbeat about the prospects for TTIP, having been quoted as saying that “the most important thing now is to reach a conclusion between the negotiators this year, and that is how we will go forward.” We believe that former U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab is much closer to the truth when saying that “it is almost impossible to imagine TTIP closing this year at this point.”

The question should rather be whether Brexit isn’t really the nail in the coffin of a proposed trade deal that has become hugely unpopular in Europe and controversial in the United States as a result of the anti-trade attitudes displayed during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. While a separate U.S.-UK trade deal may make sense—most certainly for the UK—London won’t be able to engage in any meaningful discussion with Washington until it has formally disentangled itself from the EU and agreed on the type of trade relationship it wants with Brussels.


The Brexit saga is likely to remain a simmering issue with its related uncertainties for the foreseeable future, whether the UK actually triggers Article 50 or not. If and when negotiations begin in earnest, the remaining twenty-seven EU member states should not try to punish the British. Europe and the UK have no choice but to maintain a working relationship with one another; both sides will have to make compromises. Nevertheless, the UK will evidently end up in a less positive situation than the one it enjoyed before leaving; if an EU member state has a better life outside Europe than inside, why should anybody stay inside? The EU’s priority will be limiting contagion and seeking to recalibrate Europe to respond to its citizens’ distrust. The future EU at twenty-seven has the potential to look very different from the EU that has evolved over the past twenty years. Many in the EU are convinced that crises provide the EU with the impetus to advance and move forward, though the key question remains as to whether there is enough vision and leadership to create an institutional structure that isn’t aimed at generating “more” or “less” Europe, but at making the EU more effective.

Richard Burt, former U.S. ambassador to Germany and Assistant Secretary of State, serves as Managing Director at McLarty Associates and chairman of the National Interest’s Advisory Council. Philippe Maze-Sencier is a Senior Director at McLarty Associates.

Image: The EU flag with one star missing. Flickr/