Expert View

Brexit talks so far: A catalogue of errors

by David Hannay | 02.05.2017

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

Well, now we know the position of the two sides when the Brexit negotiations start. But we have no idea of the basis on which a deal will be struck – or even whether one will be reached at all given Theresa May’s insistence that no deal would be better for Britain than a bad deal. And the chances of no deal have certainly not diminished as a result of last week’s fraught Downing Street dinner.

What’s clear is that there is little in the guidelines adopted by the European Council on April 29 to gladden the hearts of those in the UK who really do want to establish a new, close, mutually beneficial partnership.

That it took only four minutes for the EU 27 leaders to reach agreement last Saturday is trivial. That is always what happens at Council meetings when the conclusions have been negotiated in advance. It is also futile to muse about which galaxy the prime minister and the president of the commission live in.

What is more useful is to ask how a normally pretty fractious group such as the EU 27, each with different national interests, managed to settle on an approach best described as a programme for a hard Brexit. The answer is glaringly obvious: because we made it so easy for them to do so.

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Take trade, for example, on which so many businesses and livelihoods across Europe depend. Was it wise to discard, even before talks had begun, the possibility of Britain remaining in the Single Market or the Customs Union? Would it not have been more sensible to keep those two options on the table and compel the EU to respond? After all, they both offer a way of avoiding the re-establishment of border controls between the two parts of Ireland, which is an objective we share.

Was it wise, too, to give absolute priority over these trade issues to setting up new immigration controls which we have not yet defined and will be unable to describe when the Brexit negotiations open?

Then there is the issue of the status of EU citizens living and working in the UK and of British citizens in other member states. The government was urged time and again, in parliament and outside, to make a unilateral commitment guaranteeing the rights of EU citizens here. Ministers refused on the specious grounds that this would be to abandon our compatriots living in the EU. They persisted even when the organisations representing those Britons said a unilateral UK pledge would be the best way of supporting them. With its guidelines the EU has now shown that view to be correct and has cheerfully occupied the moral high ground, leaving the UK to be drawn into messy, transactional talks which could well prolong the uncertainty hanging over everyone concerned.

And is demonising the European Court of Justice (ECJ) a useful way to open the negotiations? If the bargaining is to forge a new partnership of the sort Theresa May sketched out in her March 29 letter to Donald Tusk, it will inevitably require dispute settlement arrangements in which the ECJ will play an important role.

This certainly does not mean that the EU 27 have made no errors of their own. It was pretty crass to leak the figure of €60 billion for the divorce bill before the two sides had even discussed the component parts of a settlement, let alone put figures to each one. And a rigid insistence that the divorce settlement must precede discussion of the shape of the new partnership could not only be contrary to Article 50 itself, which speaks of the first taking account of the second, but could well doom the negotiations to failure. Fortunately, the EU 27 have left themselves some wiggle room by requiring only “sufficient progress” on the three priority divorce issues – which neither side disputes – before broadening out the talks.

So not a great start. But there is a long way to go. A lot of flexibility will be needed on both sides to avoid a train wreck. Unfortunately, the predominantly pro-Brexit UK press and their supporters in parliament are already making it clear that flexibility is the last thing they want the prime minister to show.

Edited by Alan Wheatley

2 Responses to “Brexit talks so far: A catalogue of errors”

  • It’s now abundantly clear that Mayhem is attempting to play the Falklands war card as she wants persuade voters that the EU are our enemies. I just hope to God it doesn’t work. But I’m not holding my bteath…

  • Unfortunately, it was inevitable that the PM would try to shift the blame onto the EU side. It is her last card. The Brexit politicians spun the UK population a line, and now they have to deliver. They were able to avoid and minimise public debate since the Vote, or dismiss contrary views as Project Fear, but now they are going to get found out. Nobody likes to be proved wrong, but only by putting blame back at EU politicians, can the Brexit lobby save face. The clips and articles I have seen of Juncker, Tusk and Barnier have shown them to be perfectly courteous and polite in the way they have approached the PM, but of course, they have to spell out the harsh self-evident truths. It is the UK who wants to move away from them, not the other away around, which is of great significance. Why should the EU suddenly give way on one of its main principles, to do with the integrity of the Single Market?

    What we have to expect now is that the PM and government will try and build a kind of Us v Them siege mentality. This will make things worse as it will ailienate more Europeans that want to be constructive. What we should remember is that we are British and European. It’s not either or. We want a settlement that enables us to maintain our trade and influence in Europe, and that protects the entirely innocent citizens either side of the Channel who have been caught in the middle, many of whom didn’t get a vote on the matter. .