Expert View

Compare joining Europe (1970-2) to Brexit chaos (2016-?)

by David Hannay | 01.03.2018

Ahead of another major Brexit speech tomorrow, Theresa May finds herself embroiled in a battle with Brussels over Northern Ireland and fighting to keep a fractious party together. It’s a far cry from how another Tory government negotiated our entry into Europe in the 1970s.

The ink was barely dry on the UK’s Accession Treaty to the European Communities in January 1972 when the UK’s principal official level negotiator, Con O’Neill, sat down to write the history of the negotiations and to draw lessons from them. The final chapter was entitled: “Did we make mistakes?”

His brilliant and unsparing analysis languished for several decades in the oubliettes of Whitehall, too sensitive to publish. It did finally see the light of day in 2000. Has anyone involved in the current Brexit negotiations even read this account, let alone sought to apply the lessons learned? Not much sign of that. An exercise in compare and contrast might not come amiss as the government fumbles its way towards the first anniversary of the triggering of Article 50.

Exhibit A: Government unity

The Heath government in 1970 went into the negotiations united and emerged from them in similar condition. It was led by a prime minister whose experience in the earlier negotiations, vetoed by Charles de Gaulle, meant he was a master of the subject matter. The team at ministerial and official level was coherent and tightly knit, bringing in all government departments involved in the negotiations and in their subsequent implementation.

What do we have today? A prime minister who would make the Oracle of Delphi appear loquacious; a cabinet split from top to bottom and leaking like a sieve; negotiations in the hands of a department without experience and without the responsibility for implementing the most wrenching set of changes in recent British bureaucratic history. And, incidentally, why do we have two separate, entirely new departments each handling one half of the UK’s international trade?

Exhibit B: Playing a weak hand

How best do you negotiate if you are dealt a relatively weak hand? Because that was the case in 1970, as it was in 2016. Not, I would suggest, by a combination of denial and of bombast and bluster as the present government has been doing. Nor by flirting publicly with the concept that no deal would be better than a bad deal, when everyone can calculate that the UK will be worse affected than the EU by such an outcome. Nor by drawing a multiplicity of red lines around a non-existent preferred solution.

The Heath government did none of those things, but concentrated on negotiating well-prepared pragmatic solutions to a limited number of key issues – trade, agriculture, fisheries, budget, Commonwealth sugar, New Zealand butter. And on only one of these, fisheries, did it fall seriously short, even as seen through the lens of subsequent developments.

Exhibit C: Divide and rule

Do you pursue the fantasy of a “divide and rule” approach, seeking to play on the differences between your negotiating partners? In 1970 those differences were much greater than they are between the 27 other EU countries today, with five of the six member states solidly in favour of British accession and one, France, having vetoed us twice.

But the hard fact is that you need unanimity in Brussels to achieve the outcome you want and so you have to deal with the European institutions as you find them, not try to undermine them or split them up. That lesson does not seem to have been fully absorbed by the present negotiators.

Exhibit D: Time management

You do not waste time. In 1970 the UK’s main negotiating objectives were carefully prepared before the negotiations even began. The negotiations were admittedly less complex than the current ones, but no less unprecedented, since this was the first occasion on which the European Communities had been enlarged. They were completed in 18 months, from initiation to signature.

This is hardly what we are seeing now, with nearly a year gone by and still no clarity and no engagement on the main issue, the nature and content of our future partnership with the EU.

Of course historical parallels and analogies are never exact, and never provide all the answers. But those who ignore them do so at their, and alas also at our, risk.

David Hannay is a member of the House of Lords and former UK ambassador to the EU and UN. He was part of the Accession Treaty negotiating team in 1970 and edited Con O’Neill’s account of the talks, “Britain’s Entry into the European Community: Report on the Negotiations of 1970-72”.

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    Edited by Luke Lythgoe

    2 Responses to “Compare joining Europe (1970-2) to Brexit chaos (2016-?)”

    • It comes down, once again, to the stupidity of Cameron’s referendum. No plausible UK government could have anything like a majority preferring Leave over Remain, let alone any particular version of Leave, and that is true in spades of the government we actually have. So it was crazy to even offer the possibility, especially absent any serious public demand for a vote on the issue..


    • Exhibit E: Experience

      Theresa May’s worst mistake was to dispense with the experience and sharpness of the Cameroons – particularly George O- in favour of Ministerial Virgins at loggerheads with one another.

      Exhibit F :Realism

      The May Government’s ( or the Ultra half of it) doomed optimism – whether in cake policy, congestion charge precedents, or the entrenched belief that the EU need us more than we do them.

      Exhibit G: Gravitas

      No comment.