Forging Unity: European Commission Leadership in the Brexit
LEONARD AUGUST SCHUETTE
Department of Political Science, Maastricht University, Maastricht
This article explains why the European Union has remained strikingly cohesive during the
Brexit withdrawal negotiations by focussing on the role played by its negotiator: the European
Commission’’s Task Force 50. The analysis demonstrates that the Task Force 50 set out to forge
unity among the EU27 by exercising both subtle instrumental and direct political leadership.
The Commission signiﬁcantly inﬂuenced the outcome of the negotiations by shaping the agenda
and process, brokering deals, and ultimately achieving a withdrawal agreement that all member
states signed up to. Its transparent and consultative behaviour generated trust among member
states, which allowed the Commission to play such a prominent role. These ﬁndings challenge
the prevailing view that the EU has become increasingly intergovernmental at expense of the
Commission. Drawing on original interviews, the article substantiates this argument by tracing
the Commission’s leadership activities in the run-up to and throughout the withdrawal negotiations
Keywords: Brexit; European Commission; EU institutions; leadership; negotiations
The conﬂuence of recent crises has caused almost pathological divisions among the
member states of the European Union (EU) (Schuette, 2019; Webber, 2019). The EU
was paralyzed and struggled to reach consensus on how to cope with the Euro, Schengen,
and rule of law crises. Against this backdrop, Brexit threatened to become the ﬁnal straw
that would lead to the unravelling of the EU (Van Middelaar, 2019, p. 120; Oliver, 2018,
p. 256). Then European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker (2017) exemplarily
dreaded that the ‘Brits will manage without big effort to divide the remaining 27
member-states’. Contrary to these gloomy predictions, however, the EU remained
strikingly united during the Brexit withdrawal negotiations with the United Kingdom
(UK) and concluded agreements both with the May and Johnson governments largely
on its own terms. While the EU had preferred a closer future relationship than the one
transpired, it protected the integrity of the single market, safeguarded the rights of EU
citizens in the UK, avoided a hard border in Ireland, and demonstrated the difﬁculties
of leaving the union.
This article seeks to explain this puzzling unity among the EU27 and, by extension, the
negotiation success. Extant accounts emphasize asymmetrical bargaining constellations
(Schimmelfennig, 2018), negotiation errors on part of the UK (Rogers, 2019), path depen-
dencies (McTague, 2019), the maturing of the EU as a strategic polity (Laffan, 2019), or a
combination of rational, bureaucratic, identity, and framing factors (Jensen and
Kehlstrup, 2019). This article, instead, speciﬁcally zooms in on the role of the EU’s actual
JCMS 2021 pp. 1–18 DOI: 10.1111/jcms.13171
© 2021 The Authors. JCMS: Journal of Common Market Studies published by University Association for Contemporary European Studies and John Wiley & Sons
This is an open access article under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits use, distribution and reproduction in any medium,
provided the original work is properly cited.
negotiator: the European Commission in form its Task Force for the Preparation and
Conduct of the Negotiations with the United Kingdom under Article 50 (TF50) under
the leadership of chief negotiator Michel Barnier. The article traces the role of the TF50
in the run-up to (June 2016–March 2017) and throughout (March 2017–January 2020)
the Brexit negotiations.
It ﬁnds that the Commission was acutely aware of the potentially existential threat
Brexit posed for the EU and, unlike in other negotiations where the Commission tended
to pursue parochial interests, therefore set out to forge unity among member states to pro-
tect the overall EU polity. To do so, the Commission exercised both subtle instrumental
and direct political leadership which proved crucial in shaping the process and agenda,
brokering deals among the EU27, and ultimately achieving the withdrawal agreement that
all parties signed up to. The consciously transparent and consultative conduct was critical
in producing a trusted and cooperative relationship with the member states and other in-
stitutions, which enabled the Commission to show such prominent leadership.
These ﬁndings challenge the growing consensus among scholars that the EU has
become increasingly intergovernmental (Bickerton et al., 2015; Genschel and
Jachtenfuchs, 2018). Van Middelaar (2019), for instance, suggests that recent crises posed
sensitive questions of redistribution, citizenship and borders, prompting the European
heads of states and governments in the European Council to dominate crises responses
and circumvent EU institutions and procedures. The Commission’s discernible leadership
also differs from its roles during the renegotiations of both the UK’s membership terms,
when it was largely sidelined, and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership,
when it struggled to shape negotiations (Beach and Smeets, 2019; De Bièvre, 2018).
The article advances this argument by, ﬁrst, discussing theoretical perspectives on
leadership in the EU. Second, it outlines the methodological approach. Third, the article
assesses the Commission’s scope for leadership in terms of institutional, contextual,
and personal factors. The fourth part traces the Commission’s instrumental and political
leadership activities. Finally, the conclusion discusses limitations and offers reﬂections
on the wider applicability of Commission’s leadership approach.
I. The Contested Leadership of the Commission
As a fragmented and complex system of multi-level governance, the EU lacks a singular
leadership structure (Toemmel and Verdun, 2017, p. 103). With multiple sources of
authority, the EU constitutes an ‘intensely leaderful polity’(Mueller and Van Esch, 2019,
p. 2), where different actors –including the EU institutions, national governments, or
non-governmental actors –can exercise different types of leadership. This article focuses
on the most recent typology of leadership as instrumental and political. Political leader-
ship denotes direct acts of shaping the agenda and building coalitions to reach a consensus
on the desired outcome (Ross and Jenson, 2017; Toemmel, 2013), while instrumental
leadership refers to institutional activities such as drafting proposals and the use of
varieties of expertise to subtly inﬂuence an outcome (Beach and Smeets, 2019). It has
been the perennial occupation of EU integration theories to offer competing accounts of
which (type of) actor possesses the ultimate leadership authority. The classic dichotomous
debate between neo-functionalism and liberal intergovernmentalism on whether
Leonard August Schuette2
© 2021 The Authors. JCMS: Journal of Common Market Studies published by University Association for Contemporary European Studies and John Wiley & Sons
supranational institutions or national governments dominate the integration process,
however, has recently given way to more nuanced discussions.
New intergovernmentalism (NI) remains in the tradition of liberal intergovernmentalism
by identifying the intergovernmental actors in the European Council as the political leaders
of the EU. However, it recognizes that delegation of powers to EU institutions have oc-
curred (Bickerton et al., 2015). Yet, rather than empowering the traditional supranational
institutions such as the Commission, member states have created de novo bodies that tend
to be controlled by speciﬁc mandates and tight oversight mechanisms. In this new
intergovernmental era, there is allegedly little space for Commission leadership. The new
institutionalist leadership (NIL) theory shares NI’s premise of the centrality of the
European Council in post-Maastricht EU politics, but deviates from NI’s conclusions on in-
stitutional leadership (Beach and Smeets, 2019; Smeets and Beach, 2020). NIL argues that
the current era is characterized by a division of leadership responsibilities between the
European Council and the other EU institutions. In the control room, national governments
remain in charge of the overall process and provide political leadership. The complexity of
recent crises, however, required governments to delegate authority to supranational actors
in the machine room. In doing so, supranational institutions like the Commission can
exert instrumental leadership of subtly steering negotiations on EU reforms or with third
With the election of Jean-Claude Juncker as Commission President in 2014 after the
highly politicized Spitzenkandidaten process and his declared intention to lead a ‘political
Commission’, a third strand of literature on institutional leadership has emerged. This
group of scholars is primarily motivated by the conceptual question what ‘political Com-
mission’designates and the empirical question whether the Juncker Commission indeed
constituted such a ‘political Commission’(Kassim and Laffan 2019; Toemmel, 2019;
Nugent and Rhinard, 2019). These scholars rarely explicitly engage with the theoretical
debate on institutional leadership and their vantage is hardly a consolidated theoretical ap-
proach. However, the ﬁndings that the Juncker-Commission acted unprecedentedly polit-
ical in substantive (for example the Juncker Plan and White Paper on the Future of
Europe), institutional (namely reorganization of the College and presidentialisation of
the Commission), and rhetorical terms challenges NIL’s premise that the Commission
would be conﬁned to providing instrumental, not political, leadership.
These competing perspectives suggests that the interplay of three probabilistic
conditions determines what type of leadership, if any, the Commission can exercise: its
institutional position in the EU landscape; the context of public and member state opinion
vis-à-vis European integration; and the personal capacity of potential leaders (Kassim
et al., 2013; Toemmel, 2013). Those scholars upholding the ‘Commission in decline’
thesis point to unfavourable institutional and contextual developments since the
Maastricht Treaty. Institutionally, the continuous empowerment of the European
Parliament, the decline of the traditional Community method of policy-making and
concomitant rise of the European Council have come at the expense of the Commission
(Puetter and Fabbrini, 2016; Dinan, 2016; Kassim et al., 2013; Bauer and Ege, 2012).
Contextually, increased politicization of the EU and consequently reluctance among
member states to support greater supranational integration allegedly reinforce the
unfavourable institutional developments (Keleman and Tarrant, 2011). Empirical studies
also note that with the possible exception of Juncker, Commission Presidents since Delors
Forging Unity: European Commission Leadership in the Brexit Negotiations 3
© 2021 The Authors. JCMS: Journal of Common Market Studies published by University Association for Contemporary European Studies and John Wiley & Sons
have lacked the personal capacities to exercise signiﬁcant leadership (Mueller, 2017;
Toemmel, 2013, 2019).
These three perspectives also share –to a varying degree –the premise that the
relationship between the Commission and other EU institutions is driven by the
zero-sum logic of power maximising institutions. NI and the literature on the ‘political
Commission’assume a power struggle between the Commission and European
Council/Council. NIL emphasizes a division of labour, in which, however, the Commis-
sion is the subordinate executor of tasks informally delegated by the European Council,
even if that allows the Commission to steer proceedings behind the scenes. Yet, recent in-
stitutional developments question this hierarchical perspective on the inter-institutional
relationship, and Brexit is a case in point. Not only has the European Council limited
administrative resources and sanctioning powers to control the Commission, the parallel
process of presidentialisation in the European Council and the Commission –with the
creation of the President of the European Council and the incremental empowerment of
the ofﬁce of the President of the Commission –has created a new inter-institutional
dynamic. As a result, the division of labour is often negotiated by the two Presidents,
which is conducive to producing more complex and positive-sum cooperation
(Bocquillon and Kassim, 2020).
In sum, this section analysed competing perspectives on the Commission’s leadership
in order to distil a consolidated theoretical framework based on three probabilistic condi-
tions, which allows formulating expectations on the Commission’s leadership and guides
empirical assessments beyond this speciﬁc case. The framework suggests that the stronger
the institutional position of the Commission in the Brexit negotiations, the greater the
support among member states for a common approach to the negotiations, and the more
astute and prominent the Commission’s leadership personnel, the more likely the Com-
mission can exert instrumental and political leadership.
II. Methodological Approach
The ensuing analysis assesses what type of leadership, if any, the Commission exerted, its
importance for forging unity of the EU27 during the withdrawal negotiations and, by
extension, the successful conclusion of the withdrawal agreements with the May and
Johnson governments. While several factors contributed to the negotiation outcome, the
limited scope here does not allow for systematically engaging with the aforementioned
alternative explanations. Given the emphasis on multi-causality, the aspiration is to illus-
trate that the Commission’s leadership was one causal factor. Following a congruence
analysis of the three theoretical conditions, this paper relies on minimalist
process-tracing to link the Commission’s leadership with the outcome, where the causal
process is not unpacked into its component parts (Bennett and Checkel, 2014, p. 7).
Instead, observable empirical manifestations for each of the leadership strategies need
to be made explicit a priori to evaluate their existence and impact.
It adds analytical clarity to distinguish instrumental and political leadership strategies
conceptually, even if in practice they often overlap. Instrumental leadership strategies
consist of drafting legal texts and position papers as well as utilizing expertise to inﬂuence
the outcome. By holding the pen, the Commission can construct the scaffolding for sub-
sequent debate (Beach, 2004), while its expertise on policy, procedure, legality and
Leonard August Schuette4
political context allows it to frame the debate in terms favourable to its goals, for instance
by presenting policy options without alternatives or inﬂuence the perception of payoffs of
the different options (Barnett and Finnemore, 2004). Observable indicators for the provi-
sion of expertise include position papers and information sheets, hosting of technical sem-
inars, and organization of the TF50 to effectively draw on the wider expertise of the
Commission. Drafting is observable through textual evidence of draft position papers
and negotiation texts.
Political leadership strategies, in turn, refer to agenda shaping and brokerage
activities. By raising awareness and active framing (agenda-setting), prioritising items
on the agenda (agenda-structuring), and wilfully circumventing other matters (agenda-
exclusion), the Commission can shape the negotiation agenda in its favour
(Tallberg, 2003). By building coalitions with an array of similar-minded actors and sound-
ing out member-states’concerns to identify, and subsequently push for, possible zones of
agreement, the Commission can also act as central compromise broker among member-
states. Empirical footprints for agenda-shaping include the mandate and negotiation
directives, media interaction, the communication of red lines, progress reports, draft
agreements, and interviews with negotiators. Evidence for brokerage, in turn, can be
found in shuttle diplomacy by the negotiator and bilateral meetings with stakeholders,
coalition-building through intensiﬁed interaction with a particular set of actors, drafting
of single negotiation texts, and interviews with involved negotiators.
Fourteen semi-structured original interviews with EU ofﬁcials from the TF50,
European Parliament’s Brexit steering group, the European Council, as well as national
ofﬁcials directly involved in the negotiations (that is, Brexit delegates) from a diverse
range of member states such as Germany, Italy, and Poland serve as the primary source
of data. The interview response rate was approximately 60 per cent. Publicly available
information such as ofﬁcial documents published by the TF50, press statements, media
interviews, and journalistic accounts were used to triangulate the evidence generated in
III. The Commission’s Scope for Providing Leadership in the Withdrawal
This section evaluates the presence in the withdrawal negotiations of the three conditions
identiﬁed in the theory section that explain the exercise of leadership: the Commission’s
institutional position in the negotiations, the context of member states’sentiments and
interests in the withdrawal negotiations, and the qualities of its leadership duo.
Institutional Position, the TF50’s Set-up and the Appointment of Michel Barnier
Due to the unprecedented nature of Brexit, no institutional blueprint existed how the EU
would conduct the looming negotiations with the UK. The EU had to devise new struc-
tures and modi operandi, which eventually produced the institutional set-up that enabled
the Commission’s leadership. By December 2016, the EU had translated the vague
Article 50 stipulations into a multifaceted governance system for the Brexit negotiations
(European Council, 2016). The European Council would sit at the helm of the negotia-
tions with the powers to set the negotiation guidelines, determine whether ‘sufﬁcient
Forging Unity: European Commission Leadership in the Brexit Negotiations 5
progress’had taken place on the ﬁrst phase issues, and grant extensions to the withdrawal
period. The Commission’s TF50 was appointed lead negotiator, which endowed it with
greater bargaining power than during reform negotiations or crisis management, when
EU member states tend to circumvent existing procedures in which EU institutions pos-
sess an important formal role. The exclusive conduct of negotiations via the TF50 put
it into a commanding position of inﬂuence (Gostyńska-Jakubowska and von Ondarza
2020). The General Affairs Council (GAC) would coordinate the withdrawal process with
the Commission. It thereby also served as a control organ to ensure that Commission
abided by the negotiation guidelines. Member states appointed Belgium diplomat Didier
Seeuws as the chair of the GAC’s Working Party on Article 50. Last, the European Par-
liament set up a Brexit Steering Group under the chairmanship of Guy Verhofstadt.
In line with Juncker’s wider ambitions to deploy the Commission’s expertise for polit-
ical priorities, he chose a distinct set-up of its negotiation force. While negotiations teams
usually only consist of Commission ofﬁcials, Juncker superimposed a political ﬁgure on
this technocratic structure: Michel Barnier. Juncker and his team had feared that the Leave
side would win the referendum and made contingency plans prior to 23 June. Aware of
the constitutional rather than technical nature of the looming negotiations, Martin
Selmayr, then Juncker’s chief of staff, suggested to approach Barnier rather than
Jean-Luc Demarty, as the Director General for Trade in the Commission the natural
choice in normal trade negotiations (Interview #13). When formally appointing him head
of the TF50 on 1 October 2016 Juncker duly stressed Barnier’s political credentials: ‘I
wanted an experienced politician […] He has an extensive network of contacts in the cap-
itals of all EU Member States and in the European Parliament’(Juncker, 2016). A former
French cabinet minister and two times European Commissioner, including for the internal
market, Barnier possessed deep knowledge of national and EU politics as well as relevant
technical matters, and was thus in a unique position to transcend the political-technical
divide. The appointment of a well-connected and experienced political heavyweight
endowed the TF50 with greater authority and proved critical in persuading national
leaders to step back and grant the formal negotiation mandate to the TF50 in December
2016 (Interviews #6; #11; McTague, 2019).
Barnier had at his disposal some of the most experienced and brightest ofﬁcials from
the Commission. Sabine Weyand, who was as Deputy Director-General of DG Trade
closely involved in the trade negotiations with Canada (CETA) and the United States
(TTIP), was appointed his deputy. At its peak in the summer of 2018, the TF50 had
almost 60 permanent members of staff. Furthermore, each TF50 staff member had a point
of contact in one of the Commission’s DGs and thus access to the entire ﬁrepower of the
33,000 people strong Commission bureaucracy (Interview #6).
Thus, the Commission was in the institutionally powerful position of lead negotiator.
Yet, unlike in normal trade negotiations the European Council and GAC were more
closely involved, implying little room for manoeuvre for the Commission to escape from
Interest Constellation of the EU27: Polity Interests
The context within which the withdrawal negotiations took place differed from previous
episodes when rising Euroscepticism sentiments across the continent had undermined the
Leonard August Schuette6
scope for Commission leadership. Following the shock of the Brexit vote, which was to
be aggravated by the election of Donald Trump as US President in November 2016,
member states were more willing to put existing differences aside. Moreover, they were
generally uncertain about the procedure and substance of the negotiations, which opened
the door for the Commission to proactively shape key early decisions, including its
appointment as lead negotiator.
Above all, the prerequisite for the trusted and cooperative inter-institutional relation-
ship that enabled the Commission’s leadership was a particular interest constellation. Un-
like in ordinary trade and reform negotiations, where the Commission would be expected
to have distinct policy and bureaucratic interests, in the withdrawal negotiations the Com-
mission primarily had polity interests. Brexit posed a peril to the very survival of the
Union: it threatened not only to unleash a chain reaction by setting a precedent for other
states to leave, but also the integrity of the single market should the UK be allowed to
opt-into parts of it, and the paciﬁcation of the island of Ireland underwritten by the EU.
The Commission recognized the momentous nature of the withdrawal negotiations early
on; maintaining cohesion became not only a means to a better negotiation outcome but an
end itself to preserve the Union (Interviews #1, #6, #13). The TF50 had no interest to de-
viate from the negotiation mandate to pursue parochial gains and risk both undermining
trust as well as incentivising individual member-states to break with the common line.
At the beginning of the negotiations, however, it was far from clear that the member
states would share the TF50’s outlook. Most recognized the importance of the integrity
of the single market and shared broad interests on the three concrete issues of the ﬁrst
phase of the negotiations (Kassim and Usherwood, 2017; Interviews #2, #5, #9). How-
ever, member states differed substantially in their economic exposure and political ties
to the UK, creating varying incentives to stray from the common negotiation position
and make concessions to the UK (for example Chopin and Lequesne, 2020). Due to
deeply intertwined political histories and economic relations, Ireland was more affected
than any other member state (Laffan, 2017). EU membership provided the crucial context,
in which Anglo-Irish relations improved and normalised. The single market rendered the
border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland de facto invisible in daily
life and the EU played an important role in underwriting peace on the island. For some
other member states such as the Netherlands, Denmark, or Poland, the UK was one of
the most important trading partners. Meanwhile, Germany and the Nordic states
considered the UK a crucial political ally in advancing a liberal economic agenda and pro-
viding teeth to the EU’s foreign policy. For Central and Eastern European states, the UK
was crucial in balancing the Franco-German couple and curtailing supranational
tendencies (Turner et al., 2018). Member states thus had to balance particularistic interests
vis-à-vis the UK with wider polity interests (Laffan, 2019).
It is therefore simplistic to claim with hindsight that the EU’s unity was a predestined
conclusion (Jensen and Kehlstrup, 2019, p. 2; Glencross, 2018, p.188). Among national
and EU ofﬁcials alike, there was a distinct fear at the onset of the negotiations that the
UK would successfully divide-and-conquer the member states (Interviews #2, #5,
#6, #7). Moreover, it was far from obvious that the other member states would risk
negotiation priorities such as maximising the ﬁnancial settlement by protecting the idio-
syncratic interests of a small country like Ireland (Laffan, 2019, p. 10). Hence, the interest
constellation prior to the negotiations was not determinate. While there were some key
Forging Unity: European Commission Leadership in the Brexit Negotiations 7
homogeneous interests, member states priorities varied. It arguably needed the
Commission to mould the different priorities into a common position all member states
In sum, the Commission found itself in an institutionally powerful position as lead ne-
gotiator, though with the member states closely involved; operated in an environment of
uncertainty among member states and indeterminate interests constellation that was po-
tentially conducive to allowing the Commission a greater role than hitherto; and its Brexit
efforts were led by the prominent duo of Juncker and Barnier. This interplay of institu-
tional, contextual and personal factors was conducive to the Commission exercising in-
strumental leadership, but due to the close involvement of the member states it was
unclear whether it could exercise political leadership. As such, the withdrawal negotia-
tions differed from previous negotiations, where the Commission exercised only modest
inﬂuence. By way of example, the Commission had no formal role in the UK renegotia-
tions of its membership terms prior to the referendum, which was led by then-President of
the European Council Donald Tusk. Its taskforce was headed by a Commission ofﬁcial –
Jonathan Faull –rather than a political ﬁgure and the negotiations took place before the
twin shocks of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump that threatened the integrity of
the EU and the international rules-based order respectively (Beach and Smeets, 2019;
IV. The Commission’s Leadership in during the Withdrawal Negotiations
The following section examines the empirical evidence of the withdrawal proceedings to
assess whether the Commission succeeded in exploiting this constellation of institutional,
contextual, and personal factors. The ensuing sections ﬂesh out the components of both
instrumental and political leadership strategies and evaluates their signiﬁcance in precip-
itating the negotiation outcome.
Instrumental Leadership: Subtly Steering the Negotiations
The immense technical complexity of the withdrawal negotiations produced a strong de-
mand for instrumental leadership by the Commission. Indeed, the TF50 used its technical
and legal expertise as well as drafting skills to delineate the contours of the negotiations.
Once the TF50 was set-up in the autumn of 2016, it engaged in a massive exercise of
reviewing the acquis communautaire –the entire body of EU law –to map the implica-
tions of the variants of Brexit for different EU policy ﬁelds (Laffan, 2019, p. 9). Aided by
the Commission’s DGs, legal service, and Council Secretariat, the members of the TF50
unraveled the extreme complexity of Brexit to identify the consequences of the UK’s
emerging red lines (Interviews #1, #6). Diplomatic meetings on the technical level in
Brussels between national delegations, the Council’s Task Force, and members of the
TF50 in parallel to Barnier’s shuttle diplomacy (see below) facilitated early consultations.
The TF50’s early demonstration that it had a comprehensive grasp of the Brexit tech-
nicalities and its extensive consultations with central stakeholders proved critical in per-
suading those member states sceptical of the Commission leadership, such as Poland,
or with signiﬁcant stakes in the negotiations, such as Ireland, to rally behind the TF50
The Online Appendix offers a timeline and description of the key moments of the withdrawal negotiations.
Leonard August Schuette8
(Interview #8). When Michel Barnier and some of his senior staff met an Irish delegation
on 12 October 2016, the latter were struck by his already existing understanding of the
Good Friday Agreement and the potentially critical consequences Brexit entailed for
peace on the island of Ireland (Connelly, 2018, p. 67). The TF50 had been aware of the
land border issues not only in Ireland but also pertaining to Gibraltar and Cyprus from
the early autumn of 2016 (Interview #1). In a recognition of the technical complexity
and nascent political importance of the Irish border issue, in mid-2017 the TF50 assigned
Nina Obermaier, a former ofﬁcial at the EU’s diplomatic service where she handled the
complex EU-Swiss relations, to deal with the Irish dossier (Interview #6). Given its his-
toric links to the UK, the Irish government had been tempted to engage with London bi-
laterally. However, it realised in in late 2016 that London lacked the political will and
means to provide solutions to the border issue, and unequivocally backed the TF50,
which was epitomised by its rejection of calls for a bilateral deal by the House of Lords
in December 2016 (House of Lords, 2016; Connelly, 2018, p. 79ff; Interview #1).
By the time Theresa May triggered Article 50 in March 2017, the TF50 had cemented
its role as sole negotiator and built up deep expertise across several affected policy dos-
siers, which would serve not only as a source of a permanent dominance by the TF50 over
its UK counterparts, but also allow it to shape the tracks along which the negotiations
would proceed. As one observer noted, the ‘TF50 was patently on top of its brief’
(Green, 2017). Indeed, the TF50 was quick off the starting blocks to gain an early mover
advantage over the UK. Over the course of the ﬁrst three months of negotiations alone, it
published 14 position papers on withdrawal issues ranging from the ﬁnancial settlement
to data protection (European Commission, 2020). From the start, the negotiations thus
took place on the TF50’s terms (interview #5).
The Irish border issue soon emerged as the politically thorniest and technically most
challenging issue among the three main baskets. Throughout the referendum campaign,
the Irish border issue had barely featured in public debates in the UK. This apparent lack
of serious engagement continued in the early months of the negotiations, when the UK
demonstrated a striking ignorance of the technical and legal challenges Brexit posed to
North–South cooperation and the Good Friday Agreement more broadly, which was
reﬂected in two position paper published on 16 August that vaguely referred to innovative
technological solutions (UK Government, 2017).
In response, the TF50 in close collaboration with Irish ofﬁcials drew on its expertise to
arrive at a creative solution. On 9 November 2017, an internal paper was leaked, in which
the TF50 argued that there should be no ‘regulatory divergence’by Northern Ireland from
the rules of the EU’s single market and the customs union –this was the genesis of the
‘backstop’that was to shape the negotiations until its very conclusion (Telegraph, 2017).
The ‘backstop’proved the crucial door opener for the next phase of negotiations. Despite
outcries on the Conservative backbenches, in the British press, and from the Democratic
Unionist Party in Belfast, UK and EU negotiators agreed on a joint report on 8 December
2017 with the backstop as its centrepiece. It was obvious that the situation in Ireland
would remain a protracted political problem in the UK, but the TF50 together with Irish
diplomats engineered a creative compromise solution. Article 49 of the joint report offers
three solutions to avoid a hard border: (1) a trade deal, implying that the UK would stay in
the single market and customs union; (2) speciﬁc solutions proposed by the UK; and (3)
‘in the absence of agreed solutions’, the ‘backstop’. Notwithstanding that the ﬁrst two
Forging Unity: European Commission Leadership in the Brexit Negotiations 9
options appeared unrealistic from the start, the wording allowed Theresa May to sign up
the joint report, after the Democratic Unionist Party had threatened to end its conﬁdence-
and-supply arrangement with the Conservative Party. The December compromise thus
managed to resolve the issue by delegating the border issue to the next phase, yet with
the critical caveat that recourse to the backstop would be the default option. It was thus
the TF50’s internal paper, paired with subsequent creativity, that laid out the tracks for
the joint report (Connelly, 2018, p. 348ff.).
In light of the looming deadline to ﬁnalise the Withdrawal Agreement in October
2018, the next episode in which the TF50 effectively used its expertise and drafting posi-
tion to shape the outcome of the negotiations emerged soon after the joint report. In
mid-January 2018, the TF50 set out to translate the political agreement into a legal text
and draft the ﬁrst version of the Withdrawal Agreement. Before the draft was circulated
to the UK and published on 28 February, the TF50 sent versions to all national delega-
tions. Once again drawing on its immense expertise, the TF50 received, answered, and
in part incorporated into the draft 700 questions from member-states over the course of
a few days ensuring a widespread sense of collective ownership (Interview #1;
Laffan, 2019, p. 9). This pace and level of consultation not only further increased member
states’trust in the TF50 (Interview #11). The timely publication also again allowed the
TF50 to lay out the tracks as the ensuing negotiations would be based on the EU’s doc-
ument (Green, 2018). It included the legal operationalisation of the backstop in form of
a‘common regulatory area’between the EU and Northern Ireland, not the entire UK as
Theresa May wanted (European Commission, 2018: Art. 3).
The backstop was to remain a sticking point with negotiators agreeing on an UK-wide
backstop in the November 2018 Protocol on Ireland, only for Boris Johnson to agree for
Northern Ireland to remain aligned to EU rules to avoid a hard border, in what closely re-
sembled the EU’s draft Withdrawal Agreement. In sum and as expected by the NIL per-
spective, the TF50 utilized its deep subject knowledge and drafting skills to gain
negotiation advantages over the UK, pave the way of the negotiation, and generate trust
among member-states. The TF50 discernible exercise of instrumental leadership thus con-
tributed to the unity of the EU27.
Political Leadership: Shaping Key Decisions of the Negotiation
The previous section demonstrated that the TF50 subtly shaped the negotiations by using
its expertise and drafting skills. The following section shows that despite the close in-
volvement of the member states, it also exercised more direct forms of political leadership
in form of agenda-shaping and brokerage, which was accepted by the member states and
the GAC working party who trusted the Commission not to pursue parochial gains. While
President of the European Council Donald Tusk was a prominent and vocal public per-
sona, he never undermined the TF50. Signiﬁcantly, all political decisions throughout
the negotiations by the TF50 were taken in close coordination with President Juncker
and his cabinet –not the wider College of Commissioners given the Presence of the
UK European Commissioner Julian King –which added both weight and legitimacy to
its handlings (Interview #13).
The most strategic and consequential episode of agenda-shaping by the TF50 occurred
at the beginning of the process. Following the unexpected referendum result, most
Leonard August Schuette10
member states were uncertain about their interests in the forthcoming negotiations. While
the leaders had laid out broad principles in an informal meeting on 29 June 2016, few
member states had expected and adequately prepared for the Vote Leave side to win the
referendum (Interview #11). There was a vacuum and the TF50 proactively moved to ﬁll
it. The TF50 used its aforementioned technical grasp to design the overall framework of
the negotiations. First, it identiﬁed and then put three major baskets as priorities on the
agenda –citizens’rights, ﬁnancial settlements, and the Irish border issue –holding tech-
nical seminars on those matters with all member states to get them on board. Second, in
private talks with key member states in January 2017, Barnier and his senior staff
presented the idea to divide the negotiations into two distinct phases: the ﬁrst phase would
address withdrawal matters, while the second phase would focus on future relations
(Interview #1, #9, #11). Only if ‘sufﬁcient progress’on withdrawal matters had been
reached would the negotiations proceed to the next phase.
Described by one national ofﬁcial as a ‘stroke of genius’on part of the Commission
(interview #11), this example of agenda-structuring would allow the EU to control the
process: only once the UK had settled its bills and found a solution to avoid a hard border
in Ireland would talks about a future trade deal commence (McTague, 2019;
Rogers, 2019). Due to the asymmetrical interdependence between the EU and the UK
–in 2015, the exports to the EU accounted for 44 per cent of UK exports compared to
less than 7 per cent vice versa (ONS, Ofﬁce for National Statistics, 2016) –the UK
needed a trade deal much more than the EU, thus depriving the UK much of its leverage
(Schimmelfennig, 2018). The TF50 also temporarily excluded potentially divisive issues
among the EU member states regarding future trade relations from the agenda, thereby
strengthening unity on withdrawal matters. Convinced by the merits of the proposal,
the national leaders duly included the phased approached in the negotiation mandate of
29 April 2017. Phasing the negotiations was no legal necessity –there is no reference
to it in Article 50 –but an astute political choice devised by the TF50 that signiﬁcantly
strengthened the EU’s hand.
In addition to this agenda-shaping, the TF50 alongside other EU actors also effectively
framed the negotiations to shape the inﬂuence narratives and perceptions of the negotia-
tions with the objective to highlight the difﬁculties involved in exiting the EU to bolster
support for the EU. By publishing draft agreements, guidelines, negotiation directives,
position papers, and agendas for negotiation rounds, the TF50 used transparency as a ne-
gotiation tool (Council of the European Union, 2017). It successfully created the impres-
sion that it was both united and well-prepared for the negotiations, in stark contrast to an
opaque and divided UK government (Jensen and Kehlstrup, 2019; Rogers, 2019). Indeed,
this strategy seems to have been successful as Eurosceptic parties across the continent no
longer want to leave the union and support among the public for membership across the
EU increased from 53 per cent in September–October 2016 to 62 per cent in September
2018 (Chopin and Lequesne, 2020; De Vries, 2017; Eurobarometer, 2018). Suave, seri-
ous, and well-known, Michel Barnier played a crucial role in the EU’s framing efforts.
As the public face of the EU, his remarks on the Brexit negotiations at press conferences
following negotiation rounds or rare interviews resonated widely. Especially his repeated
warning that ‘the clock is ticking’struck a chord with European publics, even becoming
the title of an ARTE documentary (Laffan, 2019). It appears implausible that a technocrat
from the Commission could have played a similarly effective public role.
Forging Unity: European Commission Leadership in the Brexit Negotiations 11
The TF50, furthermore, became the central broker of compromises among the EU27.
The Barnier Method comprised three levels, on which extensive coordination and consul-
tation took place to sound out the concerns among member states (Interview #14). First,
Barnier himself travelled widely, visiting every capital at least twice, and liaised with na-
tional parliamentarians, businesses, trade unions, and local citizens, symbolically visiting
the Irish border and Danish harbours. He thereby countered the narrative of aloof techno-
crats in Brussels and ensured collective ownership of the Withdrawal Agreement among
stakeholders across the continent (Interview #7). Second, the Commission engaged
bilaterally with member states on an informal level, hosting more than 150 meetings with
national delegations and regular pre- and debriefs before and after negotiation rounds
(Interview #1). Several national ofﬁcials emphasized the unprecedented transparency of
the Commission’s conduct in stark contrast to previous trade negotiations (Interviews
#5, #8, #9). One early example of the high-level diplomatic exchanges was Juncker’s
successful effort in two private meetings in August and September 2017 to convince
the reluctant German chancellor Merkel to keep the Irish border as an issue to be included
in the Withdrawal Agreement (Interview #13). The German government had repeatedly
questioned the need to deal with the border in the ﬁrst phase of the negotiations, referring
to its potential to derail the negotiations.
Third, the TF50 forged synergetic relations with the other EU institutions. It
co-operated closely with the Council’s working party under Didier Seeuws, with senior
TF50 staff attending working party meetings three times a week during the course of
the negotiations. Aware of the need for its consent at the end of the process, the TF50 also
fully involved the European Parliament in the negotiations by granting it extensive level
of information and access to the negotiation process (Interview #4). Barnier regularly
attended and updated the European Parliament’s Brexit steering group to ensure
inter-institutional unity (Closa, 2019). The TF50 exploited the cohesion among the EU in-
stitutions to strengthen its negotiation position vis-à-vis the UK by using the European
Parliament’s red lines on particularly citizens’rights, for instance on family reunions
and applications for settled status, to push for a more ambitious agreement (Bressanelli
et al., 2019). Thus, the Commission’s conduct allowed for unprecedentedly close
inter-institutional cooperation, which enabled it to exercise political leadership unopposed
by the member states (Kassim, forthcoming).
The resulting status as trusted broker proved critical in reaching the ﬁnal deals with
both the May and Johnson government. When the negotiators agreed to the Withdrawal
Agreement on 13 November 2018, the TF50 took the initiative to reach a deal by conced-
ing that the backstop would entail an all-UK rather than Northern Ireland-only customs
union, which to many member states came as an unexpected and concerning development
and prompted level-playing ﬁeld concerns (Interviews #12, #14; O’Rourke, 2019, p.
281). Between the 13 November and the European Council on 25 November, TF50 nego-
tiators managed to assure member-states that the EU would maintain its leverage in future
trade negotiations and that the level playing ﬁelds provisions including in the deal were
watertight (Interview #1, #9). However, as one ofﬁcial noted, ‘in normal circumstances,
this would not have gone through’in such a short span of time (Interview #12).
In a similar vein, the TF50 could rely on its reputation when it convinced
member-states to endorse the revised Withdrawal Agreement on 17 October 2019. Nego-
tiations between the TF50 and its UK counterparts on a revised Protocol on Ireland and
Leonard August Schuette12
Northern Ireland dragged on deep into the night of 16 October, with the ﬁnal text only
being circulated among member-states at noon on 17 October, three hours before the
European Council began. In light of the time pressure of the looming Brexit deadline
on 31 October, member-states trusted TF50’s reassurances that the deal reﬂected its inter-
ests (Interview #2).
In sum, the Commission actively shaped the agenda of the withdrawal negotiations and
was critical in brokering compromises among the member states to reach a ﬁnal deal.
Contrary to the expectations in the literature, the inter-institutional relationship was
characterized by extensive consultations, transparency, and ultimately trust, which led
member states to welcome the Commission’s political leadership.
This article has investigated the causes for the puzzling unity among the EU27 during the
Brexit withdrawal negotiations by tracing the role played by the Commission’s TF50. The
empirical ﬁndings plausibly afﬁrm that alongside other causal factors, indeed, the TF50
contributed signiﬁcantly to the successful negotiation outcome. In contrast to the preced-
ing renegotiations of the UK’s membership terms, the Commission was in an institution-
ally powerful position, operated in a context of uncertainty and shock among member
states, and was led by the effective leadership couple of Juncker and Barnier. The TF50
transparent and consultative conduct in the pursuit of its policy interest generated trust
among the member states, which therefore accepted its instrumental and political leader-
ship. It provided legal and technical expertise, drafted key documents, shaped the agenda,
and brokered compromises. Backed by Juncker behind the scenes, Michel Barnier’s role
not only as chief negotiator but also public face of the EU during the negotiations and
shuttle diplomat proved crucial in granting the TF50 authority in the eyes of the
member-states and the public.
These ﬁndings make two central contributions to the existing literature. First, the arti-
cle nuances the debates on inter-institutional dynamics in the EU. It lends evidence to the
claim that the Commission generally and the Juncker Commission speciﬁcally can exert
political leadership. Indeed, the Commission’s role in the withdrawal proceedings proved
more inﬂuential than the intergovernmental narrative suggests and more political than the
new institutionalist leadership perspective expects. It is undoubtable that at a time when
the EU increasingly affects core state powers, member-states will seek to be closely in-
volved in the decision-making processes, which is corroborated by their active involve-
ment in the withdrawal negotiations. However, this does not inevitably mean a shift of
power from institutions to national governments and the concomitant decline of the
Commission, but may give rise to a more complex, positive sum collaboration among
the EU actors.
Second, it identiﬁes conditions under which the Commission can exert political lead-
ership, which is hitherto underspeciﬁed in NIL and literature on the ‘political Commis-
sion’. The analysis demonstrated that favourable institutional and contextual factors
were necessary but insufﬁcient for the political leadership by the Commission. It required
the conscious efforts by the Commission’s leadership couple of Juncker and Barnier to
exploit this favourable constellation by building symbiotic relationships with other EU in-
stitutions, which allowed the Commission to exert political leadership to forge unity. This
Forging Unity: European Commission Leadership in the Brexit Negotiations 13
inclusive approach stands in marked contrast to previous episodes when the Juncker
Commission sought to assert leadership insensitive to the concerns of key member states
and other institutions –Juncker’s failed intervention during the bail-out negotiations with
Greece or the Commission’s proposed refugee relocation quotas are cases in point
(see Toemmel, 2019).
Brexit is, of course, an exceptional case. Time will tell whether the context-speciﬁc in-
sights on the agential qualities of the Commission possess external validity (see Debre
and Dijkstra, 2020 forthcoming; Schuette, 2020). The negotiations on the future relations
that nominally started in March 2020 will provide the ﬁrst test case for the continued co-
gency of the Commission’s leadership. Some contextual factors differ, as interests among
the EU27 are more heterogeneous on economic and security cooperation with the UK
than on withdrawal matters and national parliaments will likely have to ratify the deal,
both of which will make it more challenging for the TF50 to maintain unity. Beyond
Brexit, the Commission’s leadership may also provide a governance template for other
delicate policy ﬁelds such as major trade negotiations or EU foreign policy. Here, too,
the EU could conceivably beneﬁt from appointing an actor with a clear political mandate
who, sensitive to the interests of the member states and the European Parliament, can
draw on the existing technocratic structures to exercise leadership on behalf of the EU.
I am grateful to the editors and reviewers at JCMS for their constructive feedback. For most helpful
comments and guidance, am also indebted to Hylke Dijkstra, Sophie Vanhoonacker, Hussein Kassim,
Agata Gostyńska-Jakubowska, Maria Debre, Laura von Allwoerden, and Giuseppe Zaccaria. Last, I
owe thanks to the ofﬁcials who generously took the time to share their insights.
No potential conﬂict of interest was reported by the authors.
Leonard August Schuette is a doctoral researcher at Maastricht University. Previously, he
was a research fellow at the Centre for European Reform (CER), a think tank in London.
He holds an MPhil in International Relations and Politics from the University of
This article is part of a project that has received funding from the European Research
Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation
programme (grant agreement No 802568).
Leonard August Schuette
Department of Political Science
Grote Gracht 90-92
Leonard August Schuette14
6221 SZ Maastricht
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Forging Unity: European Commission Leadership in the Brexit Negotiations 17
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Additional supporting information may be found online in the Supporting Information
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Data S1. Appendix: Overview of the key moments in the Brexit withdrawal negotiations
Leonard August Schuette18