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Brexit silly season

by David Hannay | 07.08.2017

David Hannay is a member of the House of Lords and former UK ambassador to the EU and UN.

August is the month long known in the media as the silly season, and 2017 is running true to form. An article in Politico on August 3 reporting that some in Brussels attribute Britain’s “Brexit chaos” to a cunning plan was a worthy entry for a silly season competition. Not because the chaos is not real, but because it is not part of a cunning plan. The judgment of Simon Fraser, head of the Foreign Office until 2015, that negotiations have “not begun well” because the UK side has been “a bit absent” seem more apt, if in typical mandarin understatement.

It is understandable, however, that observers in Brussels and in the capitals of the EU27 should be baffled by the British government’s performance since the 2016 referendum and, in particular, since the start of the Brexit negotiations a year later.

How on earth has the member state widely recognised as having the best focused and best coordinated negotiating machine in the EU come to put in a performance which has, so far, been on the amateurish, ill-coordinated end of the spectrum? And that in a negotiation where Britain has more to lose than the EU 27 if things go awry? Those are good questions. But the answers are not that they are part of a cunning plan.

The chaos is real. Firstly it arises from divisions deep inside the government itself. These have been on full display in recent weeks; and minsters now agreeing that there will need to be some kind of transitional arrangement in March 2019 merely papers over the cracks of continuing disagreement about what final state that transition should lead us to.

Moreover the various red lines drawn by the prime minister in her Lancaster House speech in January are widely recognised now as being unnegotiable. Therefore, if there is to be agreement on a new far-reaching partnership with the EU, the red lines will need to be modified or, in some cases, scrapped. But no one yet knows either how or when.

Divided councils within the government are complicated by the parliamentary situation ever since the June 8 general election failed to give Theresa May the Brexit mandate she had asked for. The supportive votes of the Democratic Unionist Party in Parliament will inevitably be influenced by what can be agreed in negotiations to maintain the Common Travel Area with Ireland and to avoid border controls on the movement of goods between the two parts of the island. But the Lancaster House speech makes those objectives far harder to achieve.

In addition, the raft of post-Brexit legislation, added on to the Withdrawal Bill already before Parliament, on contentious subjects such as immigration and new agriculture and fisheries policies, is going to be difficult to draft and even more difficult to get past two Houses of Parliament in neither of which the government has a majority. And trouble is brewing too with the devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales, both of which are demanding to have a say.

As if this was not bad enough, the machinery of government is not working well to negotiate, deliver and implement what is to replace the legacy of 45 years of joint EU policy-making. The negotiating department, Dexeu, does not have the policy-making levers in its hands. The departments that do – the Treasury, the Foreign Office, the Home Office, Defra – are not, apparently, properly integrated into the negotiating strategy. And then Theresa May’s own negotiating strategy seems to remain an enigma to all the other participants. 

Sorting out at least some of this chaos must be a high priority when political and parliamentary life resumes in September, or in any preparatory work that proves possible before then. Meanwhile our negotiating partners in Brussels need not worry too much about cunning plans.

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Edited by Bill Emmott