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Government should err on side of openness in Brexit talks

by Hugo Dixon | 13.09.2016

David Davis, the Brexit secretary, worries that being too open with parliament about the coming Brexit talks could undermine our negotiating position. He told a House of Lords committee yesterday: “Clearly there is a need for parliament to be informed without giving away our negotiating position,” he said. “ [But] I may not be able to tell you everything, even in private hearings.”

Davis plans to keep his cards particularly close to his chest until formal divorce talks start: “Before article 50 is triggered [it] will be a rather frustrating time as we won’t be saying much.” At that time, he said, a clear set of aims would be published.

The government’s concerns about laying all our cards face up during the negotiations cannot be totally dismissed. If it honestly revealed its bottom line, that’s all we would end up with.

But, that common sense caveat apart, there is plenty of scope for government to be open with parliament and the public. Indeed, given the huge issues at stake and the fact that the referendum did little to clarify what Brexit means, it would be quite wrong to decide these matters behind closed doors. Democracy demands the maximum scrutiny consistent with not weakening our negotiating position.

In practice, this means the government should set out clearly its aims before triggering Article 50. The consent of MPs should be secured before crossing this Rubicon. The government’s goals should be debated openly and, if necessary revised, before that consent is given. It is hard to see how this would weaken our negotiating position since the government plans to publish its aims anyway.

Once talks finally start, we will need to present numerous papers to the European Commission and our 27 EU partners. These, too, should be published – in the key cases before they go to the other side. Given that these documents will eventually be in the hands of our interlocutors, there is no reason why our representatives shouldn’t see them first and debate them. Again, that wouldn’t undermine our negotiating position.

What’s more, it would be futile to attempt to keep these papers secret. With so many negotiating counterparties, they would probably leak. Far better to present the documents transparently and in an orderly way to parliament.

Davis implied in his House of Lords’ hearing that he would be able to tell parliamentarians more in closed-session hearings. This may have been designed to blunt criticism of his desire to conduct talks in secret by making MPs and Lords insiders. They should be wary of being seduced by his siren calls. The public interest will be best served if the maximum information is published and debates are held in public, so people outside parliament can contribute to these vital decisions.

The motto should be openness whenever possible, secrecy only when strictly required.

Edited by Michael Prest

One Response to “Government should err on side of openness in Brexit talks”

  • Well, well, well. So our ‘sovereign’ Parliament is not only not being allowed to debate or vote on what our Three Brexiteers and their chums are up to, but it is to be kept in the dark as well. The irony of this tactic is that it is exactly what these same people accuse the EU of. Added to this the fancilful belief that they, and they alone, have the right to browbeat the other 27 nations into conceding to their demands, and that no other nation or member of the EU is entitled to the same self-interest in protecting their economies, is simply breathtaking.

    I am more and more convinced that Davis, BoJo, Farage, Fox, Leadsom and the rest of them do not even know the meaning of ‘negotiation’. They appear to think it is simply a case of going into a meeting and kicking, shouting, demanding and bullying until everyone gives in to their demands. I suspect these ‘playground bullies’ are about to discover that the other twenty-seven kids in the playground are going to stand up to them. A pity it will impact the rest of us as badly.