Ulf Sverdrup / Apr 2021
Many expected that life would be different after the UK left the EU, but few have appreciated the radical consequences of the changed status.
The UK has left the EU, but it has not left Europe. It is obviously in the long term interest of the UK to continue to influence important developments in Europe, and it will be in the interest of the UK to seek to shape some of the rules, standards and regulations that directly and indirectly will affect the UK also in the future.
The UK will of course never be treated as an ordinary third country, but the UK will from now have to seek influence from the outside. Obviously, the UK no longer has a vote, no seat at the EU table, and few Brits will serve as access points in EU institutions. Brexit transformed the UK from being a key member state to becoming an important lobbyist nation. However, leaving also means losing access to information, the most important currency for lobbyists and influencers.
The UK no longer has the same first-hand knowledge of what goes on at meetings, no longer has the power of the penholder, can no longer be able to link issues in bargains, no longer know the fine print or have a tacit understanding how regulations are to be interpreted. The UK will slide from being in the hub of the information flow to a position in the periphery. This may also have implications for the importance and status of the UK globally, and for its role as an information exchange partner for other third countries: a position the UK has often exploited with great skill in its relations with the United States.
After more than 25 years of experience, the Norwegians and the Swiss can also testify that it is challenging and resource demanding to seek influence from the outside. It is also somewhat humiliating to always request information, while being unable to give much in return (apart from lunches and dinners). Measuring the results of lobbying, and holding the government accountable, are also made more difficult, as there are no minutes from the off-the record informal meetings.
Brexit meant that the Brits left the meeting rooms of the EU, but they will most likely reappear in the crowded EU corridors. Recent years have seen increased lobbying activity from third countries such as the USA and China, from global companies like Google and Microsoft, as well as from various global interest groups. This globalisation of the Brussels lobbying scene reflects the size and importance of the European market, but also the growing role of the EU as a global regulator. Close involvement and partnership with the EU are therefore consistent with, not contrary to, the vision of a ‘Global Britain’.
However, in such a competitive environment, privileged access for the UK cannot be taken for granted. When the UK becomes a lobbyist nation, power is also likely to shift within the UK. As a member state the government and parliament held the ultimate power to define and express the UK position. This is no longer the case. It is well known that businesses and interest groups frequently use Brussels to challenge their governments at home. Business groups in the UK will continue their lobbying efforts, but the role of the UK government as a gatekeeper and ultimate interpreter of UK interests is weakened.
The good news is that the EU is still an open political system with rather easy access for outsiders. However, lobbying has been a point of increased criticism, and measures have been taken in recent years to better regulate lobbying activities. Some in the EU would like to see further restrictions, to enhance democracy as well as to strengthen Europe’s strategic autonomy for coping with a new geopolitical situation. If so, the already hard life as a lobbyist nation might become even harder.
This brings me to a final point: the issue of trust. As a Norwegian, I find it somewhat puzzling to follow the end game of the Brexit negotiations, and the rather intense rhetoric during the first months of 2021. The parties seem to ignore an obvious fact: how the UK leaves the EU will influence the workings of the future partnership. Brexit should be viewed more of a process than as a one-off. In the decades to come, the EU and the UK will most likely need numerous cooperative arrangements, and trust will be a much needed asset. Couples who have experienced a divorce know how the divorce process is handled will determine the spirit and nature of the future cooperation, and the ability to solve practical issues of mutual interest in the future. Political life is not so different. In fact, trustworthiness is often built when a crisis must be tackled, through finding ways of solving difficult and sensitive issues with mutual respect.
The UK should have known this point very well, not least from its experience with securing relations with overseas territories. Perhaps the Brits, and the EU, should pay even more attention to the aspect of building trust - as even minor investments in cooperation now might create greater pay offs later.