The UK’s former ambassador to the European Economic Community on the negotiation errors so far—and the chances of future progressby / November 6, 2017 / Leave a comment
It is hard for anyone who cares about Britain’s role in the world and about its future prosperity and security not to feel a sense of foreboding at the progress—or rather the lack of it—in the Article 50 negotiations to leave the European Union.
The lack of preparedness for what everyone, on both sides of the argument, regards as the most complex negotiation Britain has undertaken in living memory, the endless infighting within the government’s own ranks as to what the end-state should ideally be, the repetition by the government and its main Brexit supporters of the “no deal is better than a bad deal” mantra, a sure recipe for self-harm—these are not harbingers of a happy outcome.
Why does upbeat talk from figures like Boris Johnson and Liam Fox about the sunlit uplands of life outside the EU lack any credibility? Well, at least in part, because so many of the claims they made in the referendum campaign have already been shown to be untrue or remain shimmering mirages on a distant horizon. That £350 million a week sent to Brussels to be diverted to the NHS? It never existed, and the only thing coming back from Brussels just now is a substantial bill. That claim by some Brexiters that there was no question of leaving the single market? The prime minister put paid to that in her Lancaster House speech last January. Untapped markets around the world thirsting for British exports? It is going to take an awful lot just to make up for the damage to our currently frictionless trade with the market which takes 49 per cent of our exports of goods and services and which brings with it another 12 per cent of free trade deals with third countries.
And then there are the mistakes the government has made since the referendum. Here is a far from complete list of the main ones:
– Failure to make at the outset a bold and generous unilateral offer on the status of the EU citizens living and working here. To have done so would have gained Britain the moral high ground, might have avoided the haemorrhaging of people we can ill afford to lose, and would have been the best way to secure a good deal for our own citizens in other member states;
– Discarding the options of remaining in either the single market or the customs union or both before the negotiations had even begun, thus, among other things, chucking out the simplest way of avoiding re-imposing border controls between the two parts of Ireland;
– The rush to trigger Article 50 by the end of March without any attempt to ensure that the whole range of issues related to withdrawal and to the building of a new partnership were on the table as soon as negotiations began;
– The demonisation of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) despite it being obvious that any new partnership of the complexity envisaged would require dispute settlement procedures in which the ECJ was bound to play an important role.
So, have the EU27 made no mistakes on their side? Of course they have made some errors. The rigidity of their position on the sequencing of the negotiations is proving difficult to move on from; the leaking of some often fanciful figures for the divorce bill has made progress more difficult; their own mantra about “no cherry picking” is more a rhetorical device than a useful negotiating tool.
Is the situation, therefore, irremediable? Probably not. The government has put on the table sensible and achievable proposals for a strong, continuing relationship over foreign and security policy, over working together against terrorism and serious organised crime and over cooperation on scientific research and innovation; in all these areas the mutual benefit is evident and should be sufficient to overcome technical and legal obstacles. In the Florence speech the prime minister proposed what is in effect a two-year standstill after the date of withdrawal, which may need to be longer but which very likely comprises the only way of avoiding a March 2019 cliff-edge.
But the problem for the prime minister is that the scale of the divorce settlement, the definition of the end-state of our new partnership and probably some of the details of the transitional period will inevitably bring her into conflict with the hard-liners on the benches behind her. Will she have the will and the support from her cabinet colleagues to face them down? That question remains unanswered and, for the moment unanswerable. The next year may come to seem like a long time in politics.
David Hannay was the UK’s Permanent Representative to the European Economic Community from 1985-1990