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Expert View

May and her merry Brexiters throw everything up in air again

by David Hannay | 11.12.2017

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

The government’s passionate attachment to mantras about the Brexit negotiations cannot be in doubt. First we had “Brexit means Brexit”; then there was “no deal is better than a bad deal” and “no running commentaries”. All have by now been tested to destruction. So this week’s mantra, and no doubt the one for many weary months to come, is being rolled out as if it was some kind of ultimate truth: “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”.

What do these mantras have in common? That they are virtually meaningless and can be construed to mean all things to all people. So they can be used to calm down Brexiters appalled by the size of the divorce bill; or members of the DUP who are contemplating more demands. And, just because they are meaningless, they can be quietly taken out and buried when the next phase of the negotiations require that, as it will.         

So let us try applying that latest mantra “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” to last Friday’s first phase package deal.

Can it possibly be the government is seriously suggesting that, in the absence of a final deal, the agreements reached over the status of the EU citizens living and working here and of our compatriots in the other member states is going to be left at the mercy of a wider deal to be done late in 2018 or early in 2019? If that is what this means, then one of the main purposes of settling this issue up front, to calm the fears of some 4 million people right across Europe and to stop the haemorrhaging of much needed EU citizens from the UK, will be lost. And those four million really will be being used as pawns in the wider negotiation.

Look too at the provisions on the avoidance of a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. A common sense reading of the text agreed in Brussels would be that, come what may, there will not be a hard border and that “regulatory alignment” will be applied to ensure that. But, apparently not. That too is another pawn in the great game. No wonder the Irish government is showing some distress.

David Davis, who specialises in making silk purses out of sows’ ears, is busy saying that continuing payments into the EU budget far into the future will be relatively small. But has someone not told him that the government’s plans for security cooperation and for working together with the EU on scientific research and innovation will cost substantial sums of money for as long as they last and will be additional to the divorce payment deal?

Worst of all the pieces of ministerial embroidery over the weekend was Michael Gove’s cheerful news that, following the next general election – and when we have already left the EU – a new government can simply tear up any agreement that has been concluded by its predecessor. Threatening to renege on an international treaty before it has even been concluded is hardly likely to inspire generosity or confidence in our EU negotiating partners; and it is not the sort of behaviour of which previous British governments would have been proud – and rightly not.

So long as every step in these negotiations has to be accompanied by soothing half or quarter truths designed to calm Brexiter nerves we are never going to achieve that respect and sense of mutual benefit without which negotiations are unlikely to be brought to a successful conclusion.

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Edited by Hugo Dixon

One Response to “May and her merry Brexiters throw everything up in air again”

  • With the sugary “we love you all” opening to Mrs May’s letter to EU citizens living here and Davis’ “none of this is final”, is simply appalling. Never has the thought “Not in my name” come to mind so strongly.