Expert View

May must negotiate with the EU, not Tory Brexiters

by David Hannay | 04.09.2017

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

Anyone who seriously believes that the government’s main negotiating partners in the Brexit talks are the other 27 member states of the EU has not been following the process since the June 2016 referendum very carefully.

If they had done so, they would appreciate that for most of the time the government has been bargaining with itself and with its own backbenchers; it has not been paying a lot of attention to the EU 27 and what might be negotiable with them.

Take the commitment the prime minister made at last October’s Conservative party conference to trigger Article 50 by the end of March 2017 at the latest and her grim determination to deliver on that pledge come what may. Why was no attempt made before that date was set and the trigger actually pulled to ensure that the EU 27 would engage in negotiating the “framework for a future relationship” referred to in Article 50 as well as the detailed terms of withdrawal?

Of course, that might have meant pushing back the end-March deadline; and that would have upset many Conservative backbenchers and cast doubt on the fatuous slogan about Brexit really meaning Brexit. But now the government is pleading for a transitional period beyond March 2019 during which not much will change. So what was gained by that intemperate haste?

Take also Theresa May’s red line ruling out any jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice in the UK after March 2019. Anyone with an ounce of knowledge and experience could have told her that would prove to be unnegotiable and impractical. But it sounded good to the party faithful at last year’s conference. Now the government is having to try to convince its supporters that there is some mysterious distinction between “direct” ECJ jurisdiction and “effective” jurisdiction. Not terribly persuasive and completely unnecessary.

Take too the prime minister’s ruling out in her Lancaster House speech in January of remaining in either the single market or the customs union. Was this necessary before negotiations had even begun and any attempt had been made to test the water with the EU 27? Was it wise to reject the two approaches which would have most easily avoided imposing border controls between the two parts of Ireland? But, of course, that red line was essential for the supporters of a clean break with the EU.

The mantra that no deal would be better than a bad deal has not provided the government with any leverage as far as one can see. It has merely provoked ridicule and disbelief amongst those who have done their homework and know that the UK would be more seriously damaged by tumbling off a cliff edge than any of its negotiating partners. But it sounded good to the supporters of Brexit at any cost.

And why have we heard so little about the government’s plans for continued cooperation with the EU on research, on fighting international crime and on foreign and security policy? Perhaps because all that would mean continuing contributions to the EU budget and accepting the jurisdiction of the ECJ.

What’s more, we still seem to be trying to convince the EU 27 that we have no legal liabilities to make any payments before leaving. Once again, unnegotiable but music to the ears of the hard Brexit group of Tory backbenchers.

In 1970 when the UK’s accession negotiations began just three weeks after the Conservatives had won a surprise election victory, the opening speech made on the new government’s behalf was identical in substance to the one Labour would have made if it had won the election. That was as clear evidence as you can have of negotiating in the national interest. Perhaps the government could give that a try.

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Edited by Alan Wheatley

3 Responses to “May must negotiate with the EU, not Tory Brexiters”

  • No mention of what happens to Ireland in the event of “No deal is better than a bad deal” as no deal leaves N Ireland out of EU and S Ireland In. That is causing all sorts of difficulty as it is but in the case of a No Deal it would appear to present an impossible problem which does not seem to have entered the minds of inflexible Brexiteers as if Ireland can be left to its own devices.

  • The main problem is that Brexit remains what it has always been right from the word go, an internal squabble and power struggle within the Tory Party. They have turned this party squabble into a national and international crisis, and continue to do so.