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Lessons for the future from May’s Brexit deal

Alastair Macdonald - 
The story of how Prime Minister Theresa May reached agreement on how Britain can leave the European Union offers lessons for the future of Brexit, whatever happens when parliament votes on the deal on Tuesday.
In conversations with nearly a dozen people closely involved on both the British and EU sides of the negotiations over the past two years, Reuters has identified three major themes in the process that will continue to shape a vital economic partnership as officials and diplomats look toward the next phase. “We could have run round like headless chickens. But we were able to vaccinate member states against the British spin machine we always
feared,” senior EU official after November 14 deal.
British diplomats saw early advantage in negotiating as one country against 27. But if “divide and rule” was London’s tactic on the continent in its days of empire, the tables were turned.
Political rows in London held back British negotiators. The EU by contrast found a unity of purpose that astonished its own leaders. Britons across the table concede it was “impressive”.
From Day One, Brussels rallied the 27 other EU nations, warning that any sweetheart deal to protect trade with Britain could spur copycat demands and unravel the bloc.
Chancellor Angela Merkel notably warned German industry in October 2016 against British “cherry picking” as it would undermine the EU single market that had helped make it rich.
Where British negotiators under May adviser Oliver Robbins had to cope with a cabinet at war and successive resignations of pro-Brexit ministers, EU leaders delegated broad responsibility to Jean-Claude Juncker’s executive European Commission and its negotiator Michel Barnier, a former French foreign minister.
Few diplomats dissent from the view that, as British Brexit opponent, former minister and former EU trade commissioner Peter Mandelson put it last week, the Union team “played a blinder”.
Barnier criss-crossed Europe meeting interested parties from Estonian trade unions to Ulster farmers but also worked within an elaborate system of consultation within Brussels to keep all member states, and EU lawmakers, regularly informed and onside. By releasing normally confidential negotiating documents, he turned the EU’s inveterate leakiness into a strength, creating a “transparency” that frustrated British efforts to keep offers and demands insulated from the heat of public debate back home.
With his German and French lieutenants, Sabine Weyand and Stephanie Riso, he won trust from leaders. That was vital to get their swift approval for a deal which, when negotiators emerged from weeks incommunicado in “the tunnel” of all-night talks and delivery pizza, surprised many in the EU by offering substantial concessions to London on customs to resolve Irish border issues.
If May manages, on Tuesday or later, to get her deal through parliament, the EU is already preparing to replicate the Barnier model in some form, well aware that talks from April on a future trade pact will test their unity more as all 27 governments seek national goals, from fishing rights to smooth supply chains.
“We’re not after a unicorn — just a horse with a shell on its head”: British official on a customs deal, December 2018 May’s quest for “frictionless trade” after Brexit ran up against Barnier’s contention that it was impossible to match the fluidity of trade once, as the prime minister had insisted, Britain leaves both the EU single market and the customs union.
Efforts to keep trade access after leaving were met with “Barnier’s staircase” — a graphic depiction of levels of access at varying prices, dependent on EU obligations.
But it was the United Kingdom’s geographical status as not quite an island nation that forced future trading relations into the centre of the battle over terms for withdrawal — to avoid new troubles in Britain’s province of Northern Ireland. — Reuters

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