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Johnson’s empty seat policy is a futile gesture

by David Hannay | 23.08.2019

Britain’s latest move in the Brexit negotiations – withdrawing from participating in EU decision-making for all issues not of direct and vital interest to the UK – seems to have been drawn from that skit in “Beyond the Fringe” which begins with the words: “This is the time in the war when we need a really futile gesture”. Perhaps that shouldn’t be a surprise. After all, Britain’s new prime minister is obsessed with Second World War memorabilia.

Leave on one side for the moment the extraordinarily presumptuous approach of a government towards its sovereign Parliament that the UK will leave the EU on October 31 come what may. Leave on one side also that the government has no mandate to act in this way – the sole mandate which exists, established when we joined the European Communities in 1973, being that the UK should participate in all European decision-making at every level so long as it remains a member. This new decision bristles with technical complexities and pitfalls.

1. Pretty well every decision taken by the EU will have direct implications for the UK whether or not we leave the EU on October 31. Even if we leave, those decisions will affect any new relationship we manage eventually to negotiate with the EU.

2. How will it be decided which EU decisions will have a direct impact on the UK, in which we will continue to participate, and which will not? Do not expect individual departments affected by such decisions to come to the same conclusions on that as the ideologically driven group around the prime minister. So there will be plenty of time and effort expended quite unnecessarily in Whitehall sorting that out.

3. What will be the implications for EU decision making in Brussels of the absence of a member state from the whole process? These will be complex, particularly with regard to decisions requiring unanimity. The EU will want to ensure that the legality of all the decisions it takes is not compromised – and that will not be entirely straightforward.

4. How will British ministers manage attendance at Council meetings? There will be several in every week of September and October. Each one will have a lengthy agenda and, at the outset, a whole number of decisions – the “A” points – will be taken on the nod? Will British ministers duck in and out, making fools of themselves in the process? 

No doubt the government will assert that this latest move will concentrate the minds of the EU 27 on the prospect of the UK leaving without a deal on October 31. And that this prospect will persuade them to jettison the Irish backstop. But is it likely to have that effect? Almost certainly not. Giving in to that sort of rather crude blackmail will not seem an appealing prospect, however much they may wish to avoid a no-deal exit. And they will not thank the UK for raising yet another gratuitous complexity in a process of which they are all heartily sick.

The more likely, if unintended, consequence of the latest move will be to concentrate the minds of the majority in Parliament of all parties who are determined to avoid a no-deal exit; and to remind them that a government which is prepared to play ducks and drakes with Britain’s national interests needs to be stopped before it goes any further . 

4 Responses to “Johnson’s empty seat policy is a futile gesture”

  • Good, informative piece. Would be nice if it inspired the many “political beliefs” on the remain side to grow up on the double and act as one entity until this mess has been solved with Brexit being ditched true and proper.

  • Good piece indeed.

    Three comments:

    “Will British ministers duck in and out, making fools of themselves in the process?”
    I think the whole approach, not just the yes-or-no attendance of individuals, is making a fool of the UK, full stop.

    “Giving in to that sort of rather crude blackmail will not seem an appealing prospect, however much they may wish to avoid a no-deal exit.”
    This is not blackmail; by doing this the UK will not and cannot force the EU to do anything, which is the scope of blackmail in any other setting. What convoluted mind would think non-attendance would stimulate the EU to give up on its position, which is what the UK – seemingly – wants?
    It is petulance, rather, making the UK look very much like that other nation, led by Mr Orange Petulance himself.

    “And they will not thank the UK for raising yet another gratuitous complexity in a process of which they are all heartily sick.”
    Indeed, what I think it will do is convince even more people on the EU’s side that, on balance, perhaps the EU is better shot of the UK, with or even without a deal.

    So to me this looks like another well aimed shot at the UK’s own foot.

  • Boris Johnson was quoted at a private dinner when he was unaware that what he was saying would be leaked to the Press, comparing how the Brexit negotiations were being carried out under Mrs May and invited his audience to consider how it would be if the negotiations were being carried out by Donald Trump. Well now he has the opportunity to follow Donald Trumps negotiation methods and is doing just that.

    In doing so he has revealed once more just how unsuitable he is for the role of Prime Minister.

  • Johnson’s emphasis on the behavioural characteristics of negotiation of the chummy face to face kind, appears to be deserted by his ‘sinbinning’ of ministers from attending EU meetings directly affecting their brief. How the absence of a visual UK representative voice in Brussels is going to help bolster domestic efforts to achieve the ‘chance in a million’ no deal Brexit, is absolutely beyond me.