Looking for help with the Online Safety Act - Ofcom consultations? Please get in touch. 

The irony of Britain leaving the European Union is that that other side is driving.

The British have been forced to accept that trade negotiations will not run in parallel with the 'divorce' talks, that the negotiators wll meet 4-weekly, that the default setting is 'transparency'. How is the EU is able to impose terms, when this should be a joint negotiation? It is a manifestation of power play in an imbalanced relationship. This article investigates the power relations of Brexit and suggests that the EU is able to wield 'structural power' in order to shape choices for the British.

One way to understand the powers at play in Brexit is to look at who's in charge. The Politico Brexit power matrix is an intriguing attempt to understand the relative power held by individual actors. It is a variant on the marketing student's Boston matrix, but instead of mapping product opportunities, it maps the perceived political powers involved in the Brexit negotiations in relation to their importance in Brussels and in London. In the top right hand corner are those important in Brussels and in London, and by implication, the most important people in the process.

The Politico Brexit power matrix is an interesting tool, but not the only way, or even the most useful way, to understand the power plays in this complex negotiation. Political power can be held in many different ways. It can be held by those who are given authority by virtue of the role or job they hold, which is what the Politico matrix maps.

However, this notion of power does not provide insights into the roots of their power, or into those who may hold power for other reasons, for example because they have economic power, or structural power. The latter is probably the least obvious, but the most interesting, notion of power.

Structural power is the power to determine the way things are done. It is power to force political choices and shape political agendas. Structural power is as the name suggests about control of infrastructure. It is also about control of process. Those who control the process are able to determine how things are done. They are often in a position to force political choices because they can determine the options available to governments. They don't use force, and don't appear to apply any pressure. Yet they can put governments in a bind. Governments who want to create change have to either break apart processes or regulate them, or amend them.

Structural power does not always equate to holding the reins of power. In fact, very often, it is the opposite. The holder of structural power can be outside the political system. For example, corporations can hold structural power, and so can non-governmental institutions. It may be held by a political institution, such as the European Commission. It may also be held by States or by supra-national entities such as the European Union. A key identifier of structural power is whether the entity has the ability to allow change or to or refuse it. Another is whether they can set the political agenda.

With that in mind, it's interesting to explore how structural power can explain the relationships between the Brexit negotiating parties.

The Brexit negotiations will follow a process established by the European Union in the Treaties. Although there has never been a negotiation quite like this - because no Member has previously tried to leave the Union - this process is actually an established one. It is similar to that used in negotiating Free Trade Agreements. In both cases, the Council of Ministers must draft a mandate for the Commission and this process is well-rehearsed and understood. (See 3 things to know about the Article 50 Brexit process ).

The key difference is that Free Trade Agreements take their mandate from the Council's Trade Policy Committee. This is actually the reason why the EU cannot include trade in the Brexit withdrawal negotiations. It needs to get a separate, and dedicated mandate from the Trade Policy Committee. This explains why British demands for parallel trade negotiations did not get anywhere.

From the moment that the British referendum result was known, the EU organised itself around its internal processes. The key people were appointed, objectives worked out, and documents drafted. With the Commission's mandate in place, the EU knew exactly what it needed to do and it was in a standard format to communicate to all 27 remaining Member States. Interestingly, this was also observed by the Financial Times.

The EU's ownership of the process arguably is a form of structural power. The EU is able to leverage this power right down into the detail, for example, in the four-weekly timetable of top-level meetings between the two chief negotiations, Barnier and Davis. Negotiating texts are to be published in advance of the meetings, and that means the Citizen's Rights proposals have to be published before the next negotiators' meeting. The EU published it's proposal in good time. The British appeared inefficient and disorganised when they made a partial announcement one week, and a publication the next.

A process analysis enabled me to correctly predict when the Brexit negotiations would start. (See 3 things to know about the Article 50 Brexit process ).

The EU has been able to embed its process ownership by means of strong teamwork. Somehow it has got 27 governments to speak with a united voice, and so far, they haven't deviated from the party line. Michel Barnier commented that it has taken a lot of hard work to achieve this 'team' position and it requires attention every day. European Commission staff are also on-message.

By contrast, there appears to be little teamwork in Mrs May's Cabinet. Even less joined up thinking. David Davis appears very much on his own in these negotiations, and the lonely figure of Mrs May in the Council of Ministers has been much commented on. Not to mention the Prime Minister seated on her own at the Cabinet table as she signed the Article 50 letter. She cut a very solitary figure in that photograph. This lack of teamwork isn't good for Britain when it faces such intense structural power in its opponent.

There are now calls for a cross-party committee, and even for a committee of all the talents to include industry and civil society. Given the bitter divides that exist within government, business and civil society, this would seem like a way forward. Is there an opportunity here for Britain to beat the EU at its own game and work together to build a position of strength?


The default position for the negotiations is transparency. The EU has been very sharp in playing this card. Being open puts it in charge. There will be public statements after each negotiating round. Disclosures will be agreed between the EU and the UK. Either side will have to make a request if they want to restrict the content. It will be interesting to see how this works.

It would be nice to think that the EU has learned from past experiences, when it has been criticised for back-room deals. The ACTA negotiations were a case in point where the EU played for secrecy and lost. (See my posts on ACTA such as ACTA 'in camera' - the legal opinion they don't want you to hear ).

However, the decision to make the Brexit negotiations open is more likely to have been a political act. It is on the one hand about communicating to all 27 Member States. But on the other hand, it puts the British negotiators on the back foot. Theresa May did not want a running commentary. In that respect, it has forced an unwelcome choice on the British. It is unclear if Mr Davis could have refused these terms. If he had done so, it would have been negative for him. The British negotiators will have to act cautiously if they want to restrict any disclosure, because, in this context, restricting information could make them appear to be less trustworthy.

The first challenge is already on the table. The EU has set out its position on all the elements of the exit negotiations. Meanwhile, Britain has only spoken on the citizens' rights. Arguments are raging between British policy-makers over what the country wants from Brexit, and whilst that is going on, there is no published position on any of the other issues.

Structural power therefore enables the EU to drive the negotiations. At one level, all it is doing is deciding when documents should be published or meetings should be held. But in doing so, further exposes the divides in the British political scene over Brexit fundamentals, and arguably gains the advantage. As the negotiations progress, we can expect to see the continued influence of the EU's structural power. Ultimately, a structural power analysis can help to identify the sticking points of the negotiations - the elements where the discussion becomes bitter and agreement is challenging. The British government will need to understand how structural power operates, in order to negotiate a good Brexit deal.


If you liked this article, you may also like my book The Closing of the Net in which I expand on the theory of structural power with regard to the large technology companies and Internet content platforms. This theory was originally evolved by the former LSE professor Susan Strange in her book States and Markets (1988).

I have used processs-based analysis and structural power theory to analyse several EU policy agendas and it always gets to the heart of an issue. I've used it to analyse policy changes, and the impact of proposed policies as they have been processed by the EU legislature. It is especially helpful in analysing policy where there are divided views and polarised positions - much like Brexit. There are other ways in which the EU's structural power will influence Brexit, and which merits further analysis.

Are you analysing Brexit policy? If I can be of assistance, please contact me (via Contact Us page).

If you cite this article or its contents, please attribute Iptegrity.com and Monica Horten as the author.

Photo: The Brexit negotiations, June 2017, European Commission official press photo


Iptegrity moves on!

May 2024: Iptegrity is being re-developed to upgrade the Joomla software.

Please bear with us until the new site is ready.

Find me on LinkedIn

About Iptegrity

Iptegrity.com is the website of Dr Monica Horten. I am an  independent policy advisor: online safety, technology and human rights. In April 2024, I was appointed as an independent expert on the Council of Europe Committee of Experts on online safety and empowerment of content creators and users. I am a published author, and post-doctoral scholar. I hold a PhD from the University of Westminster, and a DipM from the Chartered Institute of Marketing. I cover the UK and EU. I'm a former tech journalist, and an experienced panelist and Chair. My media credits include the BBC, iNews, Times, Guardian and Politico.

Iptegrity.com is made available free of charge for non-commercial use. Please link back and attribute Dr Monica Horten.  Contact me to use any of my content for commercial purposes.