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This is why the E.U. is being so tough about Brexit

Demonstrators protest Brexit as the governing Conservative Party starts its annual four-day party conference in Birmingham, England, on Sept. 30. (Rui Vieira/AP)

The British government is frustrated by the other 27 E.U. member states’ tough line on Brexit. The British press thought that the European Union would soften its position at the recent Salzburg summit of E.U. heads of government. Instead, the member states fully endorsed the E.U. commission’s uncompromising negotiating stance. What E.U. leaders thought of as just repeating their position that Britain would not be allowed to cherry-pick the bits of the E.U. they wanted was described by British media as an “ambush” of British Prime Minister Theresa May.

The British government has been surprised that E.U. states aren’t prepared to make concessions on British access to the E.U.’s single market. After all, a “hard” Brexit that limits future cooperation would lead to an estimated fall of about 2.6 percent in the E.U.-27’s GDP, and the fallout from a “no deal Brexit” would probably be much larger.

The E.U. has excellent reasons to play hardball

The E.U.-27 have good reasons to maintain their tough negotiation stance. First, they have bargaining power. Even though the E.U.-27 have a lot to lose from Brexit, a bad breakup would be much worse for Britain. This gives the E.U.-27 more bargaining leverage, which they have used. Furthermore, the remaining member states worry that allowing Britain to enjoy the benefits of E.U. integration without sharing the costs would encourage other member states to leave the E.U., too. My research with colleagues has shown that voters are more likely to want their governments to take a hard line with the E.U. if they think that the E.U. will not take a hard line with them. Before the Brexit referendum, for example, only 22 percent of “Leave” voters believed the E.U. would not allow them to remain in the single market. Similar dynamics also drove voting behavior in referendums in Switzerland and Greece.

The fear that Brexit could encourage more countries to leave gives the E.U. a powerful incentive to make Britain’s exit as unattractive as possible. This helps explain why all E.U.-27 member states strongly support the E.U.’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier.

The E.U. public backs this tough stance

The E.U.-27’s public backs their leaders’ tough negotiating stance. In an E.U.-wide online survey of 9,423 E.U.-27 citizens conducted by Dalia Research in June 2018 as part of my larger research project on Brexit, almost every second person who responded said that the E.U. should take a hard or very hard line in the Brexit negotiations. In contrast, only about 12 percent wanted to accommodate Britain. People who responded also overwhelmingly support their national government’s Brexit negotiation positions, most of which are very tough.

Support for a tough negotiating line is particularly strong (57 percent) among those E.U.-27 Europeans who follow the Brexit process a lot and among Europhile respondents (55 percent) who like the E.U. Perhaps surprisingly, almost one-third of Euroskeptics support a hard E.U. negotiating stance.

Moreover, E.U.-27 attitudes toward Britain have significantly hardened over the course of the Brexit negotiations. Whereas 15 percent of respondents supported a soft or very soft negotiation line at the start of the negotiations in July 2017, this number had dropped to 12 percent by the summer of 2018. In contrast, support for a (very) hard line increased from 40 percent to 44 percent over the same period of time.

Contrary to influential Brexiteers who claim that “lots of Europeans are uneasy at the line the [E.U.] Commission is taking on Brexit,” there is a high level of agreement about how to handle the Brexit negotiations.

Voters are driven by a desire for damage control rather than a desire for vengeance

Other polling data gathered by Respondi for a research project run by Ignacio Jurado, Sandra Léon and myself suggests that voters are more interested in damage control than punishment. This is not E.U.-wide data but does examine attitudes to Brexit in two of the most important E.U.-27 economies, Germany and Spain.

The people who responded to our questions said that protecting their countries’ economic interests was the most important goal for the Brexit negotiations (52 percent). Other important goals included avoiding an increase in Spanish/German contributions to the common E.U. budget (41 percent very important), finding a mutually beneficial deal for the E.U. and Britain (36 percent), and avoiding the departure of other countries from the E.U. in the future (34 percent). Only 14 percent said that punishing Britain for leaving the E.U. was important. Among Europhiles, avoiding a domino effect ranked as the highest priority.

Our research also suggests that German and Spanish voters have a clear understanding of the dilemmas and trade-offs involved in the Brexit negotiations. We presented our survey respondents with a number of Brexit packages to find out what might attract them to different packages of policies (see here for an explanation on how this works). We found that the respondents strongly supported Brexit packages that extract maximum concessions from Britain on zero-sum issues such as the financial bill for Brexit but were more compromising in areas where a hard approach would also impose costs on the E.U. — such as trade cooperation or Britain’s continued participation in the E.U.’s frameworks for scientific research and cooperation between national police forces. People understood the trade-offs but overall nonetheless supported the E.U.’s uncompromising negotiating stance.

Taken together, strong public support for the E.U.’s approach to Brexit, the E.U.’s greater bargaining power and the risk that accommodating Britain might undermine the long-term stability of the E.U. make it unlikely that the E.U. will soften its position. The outcome of the Brexit process will thus depend on when and how much Britain shifts its red lines.

Read more:

Brexit is exposing — and widening — tectonic rifts in British politics

Theresa May’s Brexit speech may break the Northern Ireland peace process

Brexit is a mess — and Trump’s visit sure didn’t help

Stefanie Walter is professor for international relations and political economy in the department of political science at the University of Zurich and author of “Financial Crises and the Politics of Macroeconomic Adjustments” (Cambridge University Press, 2015).