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Trinity panel discussion examines Brexit negotiations

February 03, 2023 - Three years after the UK officially left the EU, what can be learnt by looking back at the Brexit negotiation process, and how has that process impacted the enduring relationship between the EU and the UK?  

This was the focus of How the EU Got Brexit Done, a panel discussion in the Trinity Long Room Hub on 31 January featuring Stefaan De Rynck, the Senior Advisor to the EU's Chief Brexit Negotiator, Michel Barnier, from October 2016 until March 2021. 


The discussion drew on De Rynck’s new book, Inside the Deal: How The EU Got Brexit Done, to examine the highs and lows of the EU-Brexit negotiations, the insights gained from them, and the implications they could have for the EU in the future. The panel was chaired by Bill Emmott, Chair of the Trinity Long Room Hub board and former Editor-in-Chief of The Economist, and featured Professor Gail McElroy, Dean of the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at Trinity, and Dr Etain Tannam, Associate Professor in Trinity’s School of Religion. The panel was organised by the Trinity Center for Constitutional Governance and the Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence for EU Law, Politics, and Constitutional Governance at Trinity College Dublin in association with the Trinity Long Room Hub.

A main point of interest for the panel was how the EU’s member states united during the negotiations. “The central puzzle is how the very diverse 27 EU countries acted as a united club, but the UK was so divided”, Professor McElroy said as she posed some of the questions raised by the book.

“Unity was absolutely crucial,” De Rynck observed of the EU during the Brexit negotiations. “We went through very volatile British political situations, and unity allowed us to remain patient and focus on our mandate.

“The trust in the Commission as a negotiating team increased over time, and especially after phase one”, he added. 

The importance of Ireland and the Northern Irish border during the Brexit negotiations became a particular focal point for the panel. “In a way, Ireland had one issue, the UK had 100 issues”, Bill Emmott noted. 

De Rynck also spoke about some of the challenges he faced while working on the negotiations. These included dealing with two different UK prime ministers, as Theresa May left office in 2019 and was replaced by Boris Johnson. 

“It was easier, in my view, to negotiate with Boris Johnson than it was with Theresa May”, De Rynck said. “There was a common understanding between Boris Johnson and the commission that leaving the single market and the customs union led to trade obstacles and friction. And this was something Theresa May never wanted to accept.” 

To conclude the event, De Rynck and the panel took questions from the audience and gave some final thoughts on the book.

“I thought it was a fascinating book. I thought it showed the superb calibre of the commission, Barnier and your team”, Dr Tannam said. “But it raised questions for me — could a different road have been taken?”

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