Queen's Policy Engagement

Why the UK can’t just pick and choose from the EU menu after Brexit

Article first appeared on The Conversation. Featured image - Interlaken, Switzerland.

Why the UK can’t just pick and choose from the EU menu after Brexit

One of the many as yet unanswered questions thrown up by the Brexit vote is what form the future relationship between the UK and the EU will take. Much attention up until this point has focused on existing models for relations. Will Brexit Britain seek to stay in the European Economic Area or attempt to replicate Switzerland’s set of bilateral agreements?

Prime Minister Theresa May, holidaying in Switzerland this summer, will no doubt have taken the opportunity to ponder the merits of the latter. She would have done well to have stopped in Interlaken in the Bernese Oberland. There she could have reflected on a set of principles bearing the Alpine resort’s name. These have long shaped the EU’s approach to negotiating relations with non-member states.

There is also little reason to doubt that these principles will be upheld in determining the limits of what any new UK-EU relationship might be negotiated – and they put paid to any idea that the UK can pick and choose with the EU.


Vital Principles

There are three Interlaken Principles. The first is that in developing relations with non-member states the EU will always prioritise its own internal integration. The EU’s interests come first.

The second is that the EU will always safeguard its own decision-making autonomy. In other words, involvement in the EU’s institutions – such as the European Parliament, the Council or the Commission – and decision-making processes is reserved for member states and member states alone. Non-member states have no say even if they are obliged to implement the EU’s decision

The third principle is that any relationship must be based on “a balance of benefits and obligations”. It is not for the non-member state to choose only those aspects of EU integration it likes. Relationships have to involve a balance. And, in practice, that balance is generally tipped very much towards the EU’s interests.

The Interlaken Principles were announced on May 20, 1987 by Willy de Clercq, the commissioner for external relations, at a meeting of member state ministers from the then European Communities (EC) and the European Free Trade Association (EFTA). The announcement set the context for the negotiations that would ultimately lead to the EEA.

The history of evolving external relations by the mid-1980s provided ample evidence of these principles in practice. No non-member state was ever granted access to EC institutions or decision-making processes, for example. And the more extensive association agreements concluded by the EC imposed many obligations on non-member states.

Unsurprisingly, EC ministers subsequently endorsed the Interlaken Principles. The principles were each upheld in the negotiations that ensued on establishing the European Economic Area. Priority was given to completing the internal market – the “1992” project – and to negotiating the Treaty on European Union (otherwise known as the Maastricht Treaty).

In order to have access to the single market, EFTA states participating in the EEA must not only accept free movement in all four core areas – goods, services, capital and people – but also implement existing and future EU legislation in the so-called flanking areas of, for example, competition, the environment, consumer protection and company law.

Since the EEA, there have been numerous examples of the Interlaken Principles being upheld, even though they are rarely explicitly restated or recalled. Indeed, there is no example of an arrangement that does not reflect the principles.

All the Europe agreements concluded in the 1990s with the Central and Eastern European countries that joined the EU in 2004-2007 involve extensive obligations in exchange for the benefits of access to the EU market and programmes. And all took much longer to negotiate than had been anticipated, in part because the EU was more concerned with its own internal development.

The same can be said of Switzerland’s extensive and complex mix of bilateral agreements and of the association agreements the EU has concluded with Western Balkan countries and, more recently, with Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia. These last agreements contain almost 500 articles and Ukraine’s deal runs to more than 2,000 pages.

Each agreement paints a similar picture of a considerable range of commitments and obligations being placed on the non-member state in exchange for a range of benefits.


Set Menu

The lesson for Theresa May and her government is that the EU continues to abide by the Interlaken Principles, almost 30 years on. German Chancellor Angela Merkel stated quite emphatically after the referendum result that “negotiations will not be run on the principle of cherry-picking … Whoever wants to get out of [the EU] family cannot expect that all the obligations fall away but the privileges continue to remain in place”.

A joint statement from the EU’s main institutions in the immediate aftermath of the referendum result was equally clear:

Any agreement, which will be concluded with the United Kingdom as a third country, will have to reflect the interests of both sides and be balanced in terms of rights and obligations.

Donald Tusk, the European Council president, was even more specific and emphatic:

Leaders made it clear that access to the single market requires acceptance of all four freedoms, including the freedom of movement. There will be no single market à la carte.

None of this should be dismissed lightly. There are no precedents for a pick-and-choose approach to relations with the EU. To believe that a post-Brexit UK can select exactly what it wants in a new relationship with the EU is folly. The experiences of other states outside the EU make this clear. The warnings since the referendum that there needs to be a balance of rights and obligations must be heeded.


The featured image in this article has been used thanks to a Creative Commons licence.

Professor David Phinnemore
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David Phinnemore is Professor of European Politics and Jean Monnet Chair in European Political Science in the School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics at Queen's University Belfast. Professor Phinnemore's research interests cover EU treaty reform, EU enlargement, EU external relations and alternatives to EU membership, particularly association.

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