Accentuate the positive ahead of the Brexit talks

by David Hannay | 26.10.2016

So far every indication which has seeped out of the government machine preparing for the Brexit negotiations, every reply by ministers in parliament, has been unremittingly negative. No to free movement of people. No to any jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. No to any continuing role for the Commission. No to staying in the Single Market or the customs union. No to giving parliament a proper say in the decision to trigger Article 50 and on our opening negotiating position.

This litany of negativism is tactically and strategically misguided and doomed to repeat the mistakes made by the government in the period preceding the June referendum. It is tactically misguided because it provokes an equal and opposite reaction from the 27 member states and the EU institutions with whom we will be negotiating before the negotiations even begin. Listen to the recent statements of Hollande and Merkel if you do not believe that. Moreover, it closes off pre-emptively any number of elements of a new external relationship between the UK and the EU which could be in the UK’s wider economic interest before there has even been a chance to discuss them.

It is strategically misguided because, by creating an atmosphere of adversarial confrontation, it will make it far more difficult for the government to gain public and parliamentary support for the compromises that will need to be struck and for the degree of continuing close cooperation in a range of fields which it will be in our interest to secure.

Look for example at internal and external security – and the distinction between the two is less and less meaningful. Are we really contemplating walking away from the whole network of law enforcement machinery and cooperation which has been built up in recent years to combat the threats from terrorism, illegal immigration, drugs, human trafficking, child pornography, cyber crime and much else? Are we going to scrap our membership of Europol and Eurojust, of the European Arrest Warrant, the Schengen Information System and the Passenger Name Recognition arrangements for air travel? Or are we going to seek to build these instruments, which were recognised as being essential to our own security and which were so endorsed by massive majorities in both Houses of Parliament as recently as 2014, into whatever new relationship we negotiate?

Look too at external security where the EU’ s soft power instruments are an essential matching element to NATO’s hard power. Are we going to walk away from the EU’s anti-piracy operations off the Horn of Africa or its operations against illegal immigration in the Mediterranean? Are we going to withdraw from its stabilisation efforts in the Balkans and Ukraine? Are we going to put at risk the commitments for combatting climate change which the EU entered into at the Paris conference last December? Are we going to abandon our joint approach to a whole range of human rights abuses around the world? Or are we going to try to establish the closest possible working arrangements between us to enable all those endeavours to be continued and enhanced in the years ahead?

The answers to all these questions are obvious. But they need to be brought out into the open and actively advocated. If the government just goes on feeding morsels of negative rhetoric to make their more extreme anti-European supporters happy, it will prove that much more difficult to get broad support for a more positive agenda. The Prime Minister’s appeal in Brussels this week for a more positive approach to the Brexit negotiations was welcome. But without specifics, generalities like that will have little influence either on her backbenchers or on her EU partners. What is needed is to put some flesh on the bones of policy fields where we want to go on working with the EU in the closest partnership obtainable.

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    Edited by Michael Prest

    2 Responses to “Accentuate the positive ahead of the Brexit talks”

    • While I personally agree that the UK should be collaborating with Europe in the areas you highlighted, others in the UK have also asked for continued financial support for farmers and scientific research, visa free European travel, access to the single market etc. Why were these positive aspects of the EU not discussed with a louder voice before the vote?

      • Why?
        Because the goal was simple: leave by any means. And focusing on the positives about EU membership could have made it more difficult.