Dealing with Brexit
: The logic of delegation in the EU's Brexit negotiations

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


The United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union (EU), decided in a referendum on 23 June 2016, was an unprecedented event. While the academic literature on ‘Brexit’ is growing, much of this existing research focuses on the UK's experience. Yet, uncertainties surrounded the first use of Article 50 TEU by the EU. Therefore, I analyse the Brexit negotiation process from the EU’s perspective, with a focus on the inter-institutional power relationships. In order to examine the nature of the Brexit negotiations, I use the principal-agent framework to study power delegation from a rational choice institutionalist perspective. The latter offers a conceptual lens to analyse the distribution of power among EU institutions.

I argue that the Brexit negotiation process is predominantly intergovernmental, in that the EU Member States remain in control of the negotiations despite a strong delegation of power to the European Commission. As such, this qualitative research offers an analysis structured around four main variables that shape the negotiation configuration: the structure of the delegation, the asymmetry of information, the autonomy of the agent, and the cohesiveness of the principal. In the end, the hypothesis is largely validated; however, two findings are puzzling to the traditional principal-agent approach. Firstly, the EU negotiators engaged in a cooperative behaviour that facilitated principal control. Secondly, the intergovernmental delegation was characterised by a varying degree of agent discretion across the topics of the negotiation, which eventually led to autonomy for the negotiators. This is an important nuance to the intergovernmental argument.

The contribution to the existing literature is threefold. First, regarding EU politics, the findings may have practical replicability if EU withdrawals were to become a fully-fledged policy area in the case of further exits. Theoretically, the dissertation offers a comprehensive test of the most important theoretical propositions of the principal-agent approach and thereby nuances some of its fundamental assumptions, while articulating the coexistence between principal control and agency autonomy. Finally, my study makes an intellectual contribution to the EU governance literature, investigating how power is organised in a new policy area in the making.
Date of Award1 Sept 2022
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorIsabelle Hertner (Supervisor), Edoardo Bressanelli (Supervisor) & Adam Chalmers (Supervisor)

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