What the EU27 want: Brexit red lines from the other side of the table

While Britain’s dealbreakers are well known, we look at what they are for its negotiating partners. Not all are shared, yet all will play a part in any final deal

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The British government’s key Brexit red lines – controlling EU immigration, ending the jurisdiction of the European court of justice, calling time on further big EU budget contributions – are by now well known, set out first in speeches by Theresa May and later confirmed in a government white paper.

But what of the EU’s red lines? Here we map the concerns, priorities and demands of each of the UK’s 27 negotiating partners. Some are shared, more or less, by all; others are strictly national. All will play a part in the deal Britain gets – because Brexit also means what the EU27 want it to mean.

top graphic

Austria and Germany

Germany has been among the most persistent and vocal of the EU27 in insisting Britain cannot “cherrypick” from the four fundamental freedoms – free movement of goods, services, capital and people – or opt out of free movement but into the single market.

Angela Merkel, the chancellor, said: “If we were to make an exception for the free movement of people with Britain, it would mean we would endanger the principles of the whole internal market.”

But Berlin and Vienna accept the goal of maintaining close ties with Britain will demand some flexibility on free movement – possibly by tightening benefits access for recent arrivals.

“Unless the political chemistry is poisoned completely, there should be room to find a solution and look at new models for Britain to structure future migration,” an Austrian official said.

Germany recognises the need for an interim deal to smooth Brexit but fears it could be as laborious to seal as the final agreement and will not compromise on free movement. “If [the deal] is too comfortable, the Brits will fall asleep in it,” one diplomat said.


Italy has been far less confrontational over Brexit than some EU member (despite a spat over prosecco sales). After a disastrous December referendum, the new government is focused above all on domestic politics.

Rome has two key Brexit red lines: maintaining the link between the single market and free movement, and ensuring the rights of Italians in the UK. But analysts say it feels less exposed to the ill-effects of Brexit than others so sees a possible role as a mediator.

“In general we consider this a damage limitation process, not an opportunity,” said Sandro Gozi, undersecretary of European affairs. “We are going to lose something, and the UK is going to lose more.”

It is worried, though, about the timing of the UK’s article 50 declaration: Italy’s celebrations for the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome are on 25 March. “We will be more interested in those who want to share a common future than those who do not want a future,” Gozi said.

Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia

Intensely wary of Russian expansionism, the three Baltic states hope a post-Brexit UK will stay close on EU foreign policy and defence. They will be some of the friendlier faces around the negotiating table.

But Lithuania’s foreign minister, Linas Linkevičius, said a “pragmatic, mutually acceptable solution” and “special UK model” will still require London to compromise on free movement versus single market access.

As major recipients of EU funds, all three see the EU’s value and will defend its unity: “A country like mine sees all too well the costs of non-Europe,” said Latvia’s EU ambassador, Sanita Pavᶅuta-Deslandes.

They are also determined that the rights of their nationals in the UK are protected – some 160,000 Latvians live in Britain – and will insist on continued EU budget contributions if Britain wants enhanced single market access.

Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands

Belgium and Luxembourg were founding members of the European project and remain among the EU’s biggest cheerleaders, sending leaders such as Herman Van Rompuy and Jean-Claude Juncker to Brussels and hosting the main EU institutions.

People here see the right to live, work and study abroad as a fundamental promise of EU citizenship. “What we are trying to achieve is not just some kind of economic optimum, but bringing together the peoples of Europe,” one diplomat said.

In theory, Luxembourg’s bankers could gain from the UK’s departure. But no one is rubbing their hands with glee. Brexit is a “lose-lose situation”, the diplomat said.

Britain is the Netherlands’ third-largest export market and the Dutch stand to lose more than most from Brexit, but rising Euroscepticism means it will offer few favours: it cannot afford to make Brexit look like an attractive model.

Malta and Cyprus

Malta will hold the EU’s rotating presidency when article 50 is triggered; countries in that position – which involves chairing the EU’s daily meetings – are usually keen to uphold the EU rulebook.

Despite Commonwealth ties and long familiarity with Britain, Malta will not push for special favours for the UK. “Any deal has to be a fair deal but an inferior deal,” said PM Joseph Muscat, adding that the EU was not bluffing on free movement and “like any divorce, this could get messy”.

Cyprus seeks a “smooth and painless” Brexit, but it, too, has stressed the EU is “a set menu, not an à la carte arrangement” and any exit deal must be inferior to membership.


France has been by far the most outspoken of the EU27 on the UK’s “have cake and eat it” stance. “There must be a threat, there must be a risk, there must be a price” to Brexit, said France’s president, François Hollande. It was not possible for Britain to “leave and not pay anything”.

Three factors explain this. First, France wants Brexit to be a deterrent, not a model, for other Eurosceptics – not least its own Front National. Second, it sees Brexit as an economic opportunity: Paris is actively targeting UK businesses, notably in the finance sector, worried by the prospect of single market exclusion.

But Britain’s departure also presents a major foreign policy opportunity, to reform the EU and re-impose French influence. Whoever is in the Elysée, from the staunchly pro-EU Emmanuel Macron to more anti-federalist François Fillon, Paris will push for a hard Brexit that – as the French senate said this month – must be a worse deal for the UK than membership (though if Marine Le Pen becomes president, all bets are off).

Two further factors to consider: France will certainly seek to retain current close Anglo-French defence ties and may well throw the vexed issue of the bilateral Le Touquet accord – which places the UK border in Calais – into the mix.

Spain and Portugal

On top of protecting the rights of its citizens, Portugal wants to secure a good future trading relationship with its fourth largest export market and maintain its historic alliance with the UK.

Portugal’s secretary of state for European affairs, Margarida Marques, said Lisbon would have preferred to see the UK remain in the single market, but stressed that there could be no “picking and choosing” as the four freedoms are indivisible.

“We welcome the priority Britain is giving to an agreement on the rights of the EU citizens living in the UK and vice-versa,” she said. “But let me be clear, while the UK remains a member, all the internal market rules – including free movement of persons – should be respected.”

Madrid, too, is concerned about the rights of the tens of thousands of Spaniards in Britain, eager to retain the economic benefits of 300,000 mainly retired Britons in Spain (though maybe not their health costs), and would like the 17 million British holidaymakers who visited Spain in 2016 to keep coming.

It could also revive an old Spanish grievance. José Manuel García-Margallo, the recently replaced foreign minister, said the Brexit vote would help the Spanish flag fly over Gibraltar. The tone has since moderated, but while it is unclear how far Spain will seek to use Brexit talks to push joint sovereignty claims, it certainly could.

Sweden, Denmark and Finland

Among the UK’s closest allies in the EU, with strong Eurosceptic parties of their own and often seeing eye-to-eye on issues such as institutional reform, free trade and migration, the three Nordic countries have nonetheless all said their prime interest now lies in preserving the unity of the bloc.

“As close as possible relations with the UK is what we prefer,” said Ann Linde, Sweden’s minister for EU affairs and trade. “But it is more important that the EU as such is functioning at its absolute best and most effective.”

Denmark, too, will put self-interest above its historically strong trade links with the UK. “Our instinct is to be friendly,” said one diplomat. “But our national advantage is clearly best served by preserving and reinforcing the single market.”

Denmark’s finance minister, Kristian Jensen, said there can be “no such thing as a free lunch, not even for a country like Britain, which has been a close ally of Denmark for many, many years”.

Finland, like its Nordic neighbours, has warned the EU budget will be a necessary factor in negotiations – and said Britain should not try to relax regulations or aggressively cut corporation tax to attract business after Brexit.

Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia

The so-called Visegrad group have threatened to veto any Brexit deal that does not protect the rights of their citizens living in the UK, but in fact may – withins limits – prove among the more amenable of Britain’s negotiating partners.

All four countries saw the UK as a staunch EU ally: both a bulwark against federalism and Franco-German dominance and a supporter of economic liberalism, as well as a strong defence to the east.

But while they will miss Britain, Brexit represents a chance to advance the “euro-realist” agenda pushed by the current hardline governments in Warsaw and Budapest, both of which – while they have no intention of leaving the EU – would like to see Brussels’ influence weakened.

Alarmed by Russia’s assertiveness, Poland is particularly eager to keep the UK closely involved in European foreign and defence policy and clearly hopes to be London’s best friend in Europe, but all the Visegrad nations would back a Brexit deal that preserves good EU-UK ties.

However, they won’t do that at any price. With more than 850,000 nationals from Poland alone living in Britain, reciprocal rights will be a sticking point, as will free movement: for many in central Europe, the rights and responsibilities of the single market allowed their countries to become modern economies. They will not be sold cheaply.

Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Slovenia

Romania, whose 400,000 citizens in the UK make up the second largest community from an EU country after Poland, will insist above all that “not respecting or accepting freedom of movement … cancels access to the internal market”, said its president, Klaus Iohannis.

Bulgaria, the poorest EU member state, will seek to protect its well over 70,000 nationals in Britain and may well use the opportunity presented by Brexit to hold out for guarantees of EU cash and material aid in the event of another wave of migrants and refugees crossing its border from Turkey.

Slovenia, too, has warned against cherrypicking and insisted that Britain pay its EU budget exit bill in full, while the EU’s newest member, Croatia, has said it expects Brexit to be a long and difficult process “with far-reaching consequences” that could last years and will probably require “a tailor-made deal”.


Brexit is likely to have a more profound economic impact on the Republic of Ireland than on any other EU member state, a Lords report said last month, possibly exceeding even the effect on the UK.

The UK is Ireland’s largest export market and Dublin will seek a deal that maximises single market access for the UK – doing everything in its power to also ensure there is no reintroduction of a hard border with Northern Ireland.

At the same time, it sees an opportunity to capitalise on Brexit by welcoming UK businesses, particularly in the financial sector, that are eager to remain in the single market and a fiscally friendly, English-speaking environment.

While conscious of the two countries’ “unique relationship”, the taoiseach, Enda Kenny, made clear the bloc would not budge on free movement, which he described as “one of its fundamental single market principles”.


Engulfed in its own economic crisis, Greece has said little about Brexit beyond prime minister Alexis Tsipras’s remarks that the “chronic deficiencies” of European leaders, and their insistence on austerity policies that fed nationalism and populism, were mainly to blame.

“To be frank, Brexit is an unwelcome distraction from efforts to solve Europe and especially the eurozone’s real problems, which are most plain in the south,” one official said, adding that Greece would continue to push for more “democracy, solidarity, cohesion and growth” throughout the bloc.


• This article was amended on 20 February 2017. An earlier version described Kristian Jensen as Denmark’s foreign minister. He held that post until November 2016 and is now finance minister. The article was also amended on 21 February 2017 to take in fresher quotes from Portugal’s secretary of state for European affairs, Margarida Marques. The top graphic was amended to correct the priorities of Spain and Portugal.


Jon Henley, Jennifer Rankin, Josh Holder and Guardian correspondents

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