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Differentiation and Power Asymmetry: How Brexit is Changing UK Relations with Czechia and Slovakia

European Union
Integration
Differentiation
Brexit
Monika Brusenbauch Meislova
Masaryk University
Andrew Glencross
Aston University

Abstract

The puzzle this paper explores is nested within the context of the changing power dynamics – real and perceived – between the UK and its bilateral partners in Europe. To this end, the analysis explores the potential change in power relations wrought by Brexit-related differentiation as the UK sought to withdraw from the EU during the Article 50 negotiations. In particular, we examine and compare two of the UK’s bilateral relationships long defined by acute power asymmetry: Czechia and the Slovak Republic. These played a much less significant role – receiving far less UK media scrutiny in the process – in the Brexit dilemma than the Franco-German axis or the European Commission team led by its chief negotiator Michel Barnier. Yet the largely off-stage nature of their involvement makes Czechia and Slovakia prime test cases for analysing the impact of Brexit on bilateral power relations. This is especially true given the hard bargaining stance adopted by the UK, which sought to test EU unit especially over the most contentious issue of the Brexit talks, the Irish border. As explained in section one, the novelty of the Brexit situation requires a reconsideration of the role power asymmetries play in the process of EU differentiation. The UK’s decision to leave the EU removed the structural veto power member states benefit from in instances such as treaty change. This means the process of managing differentiated disintegration, as we conceptualize Brexit, opens up the possibility for recalibrating relationships between the UK and remaining EU countries. Sections two and three test this proposition using two central European countries whose bilateral relationships with the UK were long defined by acute historical asymmetry (Brusenbauch Meislová 2019). An extensive set of interviews was conducted with ministry officials in both countries as well as embassy staff in London, thereby providing a substantial evidence base to analyse UK overtures to both countries and what London hoped to obtain in return (section two). Section three then considers the changing nature of perceptions of the UK amongst Czech and Slovak decision-makers in response to the Brexit negotiations. As discussed in section four, our evidence shows how the UK sought to rely on its bilateral ties to curry favour with Prague and Bratislava in the hope this would yield concessions by the European Council on sensitive Article 50 topics. To this end, the UK increased its diplomatic operations and even offered Czechia an enhanced partnership. However, the UK came away largely empty handed, with the exception of a so-called Lex Brexit passed in both countries to secure UK residents rights in the event the phase one of Brexit talks collapsed. We also show that, from the reputational perspective, handling of Brexit has been steadily impairing the perception of the UK in the eyes of these two EU member states, with the UK’s misconceptions of how to negotiate its withdrawal from the EU being part of the reputational damage.