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Expert View

Forever on the back foot

by David Hannay | 30.06.2017

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

It is really odd how grimly Brexiters are clinging to their discredited slogan that no deal is better than a bad deal (now rebranded as “a punitive deal”). Perhaps that is because, for some of them at least, no deal is their preferred option. No need for serious, good-faith negotiations; no need for messy compromises; no limit to insulting the EU27 with whom we are bargaining.

It is hard to believe that anyone in the government’s ranks really still believes that the slogan represents a useable tactical device, now that everyone from the chancellor of the exchequer downwards has admitted that no deal would be bad news for Britain – bad news too for the EU27, of course, but relatively much less bad. It cannot be totally ruled out that the Brexit negotiations will end in failure, but better, surely, to shut up about that eventuality and concentrate on getting an agreed outcome . 

Then why is the government being so coy about coming forward with its detailed thinking on three major areas it has identified for future mutual cooperation between the UK and the EU27: science and research; law enforcement and the fight against serious international crime; and foreign and security policy? So far the government has referred to them only in the vaguest terms.

It may be that the government was never going to be able to avoid some sequencing of the Article 50 talks once the EU27 had nailed their colours to that mast – although David Davis’s bluster that this issue was going to provide “the row of the summer” before conceding the point on day one was hardly a masterclass in negotiating technique. But that should not have inhibited ministers from spelling out already a broader, more positive vision for our future partnership. And it is not too late to do so in the weeks ahead.

What then is holding them back? Clearly, all these areas of cooperation will cost money, perhaps quite substantial sums of money. So they will involve the UK making payments into the EU budget on a continuing basis, not just as part of the divorce settlement. Clearly, too, they will give rise to the need for some internationally structured dispute settlement procedures in which the European Court of Justice will have a role to play, directly or indirectly. This is also proving to be the case in negotiations over the status of EU citizens.

Crossing self-imposed red lines of budget contributions and ECJ oversight will inevitably embroil the government in an argument with some of its supporters. So long as the government flinches from such an argument it will inevitably remain on the back foot in Brussels. That is hardly a recipe for a successful negotiation.

The irony is that all three of these areas of future cooperation enjoy strong cross-party backing in Parliament and, for example, in the scientific and law enforcement communities. So why not draw on that support and construct a negotiating approach which is genuinely in the national interest?

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Edited by Alan Wheatley

4 Responses to “Forever on the back foot”

  • I am a Labour party member, and I voted remain in the farce of a referendum, why?
    I have a Masters degree in Public and European Policy, I can assure you that, although not perfect, the EU is a democratic organisation run by its member countries.
    I can also tell you that there is no possible ‘deal’ that any British politicians can do, that would not leave us a lot worse off than we currently are, as full influential members of the EU.
    We are far better off staying in the EU, and working with fellow member countries to improve the functioning of the EU.
    The EU, is not a country, it is a ‘club’ of similar minded European countries, working together to harmonise standards and improve the lives of its 500,000+ residents.
    The EU is not our enemy, we should continue to embrace it and work for a better world. Please ignore all the negative and misleading crap that UKIP, and others, have been feeding you for the last year or so.
    The referendum was a farce because the brexit lot, in particular, lied constantly, and the idiot tories did nothing sensible to stop them misleading the electorate. The £350m does not exist, our net contribution is around £130m and is good value for money.
    The poster with farage in front of so called immigrants was a photo-shopped load of crap.
    If anyone thinks we have no control over our borders, google the ‘Schengen Agreement’, which we are not part of!
    Politicians need to educate themselves, there are still many misconceptions about the EU.
    The ECJ do not make laws, they are merely a court of arbitration, their sole responsibility is to decide on disputes of interpretation of law between member states, or between member states and the EU commission.
    The only areas upon which the EU make laws, is where the EU have been given prior competence, by the member countries, including the British government, in previous treaties.
    All areas of EU law are open to revision, with the agreement of our fellow member countries.
    It is ludicrous that we should be throwing away over 40 years of progress, potentially ending up paying some astronomical sum, just to buy what we already have, without any influence on future direction…………. Madness.

  • Bravo Graham, it is as you say total madness to pursue this Brexit policy. But as Graham has pointed out in his note, the basic problem of UK/EU relations is the complete ignorance of a large part of the UK as to the purpose and functioning of the EU. This leaves the question unanswered as to why this is so and in whose interests it is that this should continue to be the case? This is what needs to be identified.

    • To my mind the biggest problem, based on the fact that both Torres and labour carry a strong pro-Brexit component, is that about 75 to 80% of the British population can’t care a toss about the EU and in fact suffers from a good case of simpleton’s xenophobia. They do not want to “understand” anything about the EU, or The Continent, come to that. Agreed, a most disturbing attitude looking towards a very uncertain future.

  • I agree with all the comments above, but the problem that we have is communicating the benefits of EU membership in simple terms. The Leave campaign knows that it won on the basis of false promises and the problem with the Remain campaign was that it only appeared to offer only foreboding consequences of departure. This only played into the hands of the British Bulldog spirit. I think there is still a lot to be gained by calling the Brexiteers to actually put some of their best scenarios down in understandable terms. For example there is a lot of talk about us paying for single market access, but how much? If it ends up being the same as the £130 M per week, that Graham mentions above ( ~ 8 Billion per year ) we pay currently then I think Johnson, Davis, May and Corbyn have some serious explaining to do. To have put the country through such turmoil for zero economic benefit is shameful. And this is likely to be their best deal!