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May’s doublespeak could waste yet more precious time

by David Hannay | 06.07.2018

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

Negotiating within and with the EU has presented successive British governments with almost insurmountable difficulties. And none more so than how to reconcile the way they present the desired outcome of the negotiations to Cabinet, Parliament and the people on the one hand, and to their negotiating partners in Brussels on the other; and how in due course to get the first group to accept the outcome of the negotiations when a deal is struck.

Up to now no British government has quite done the splits, although some have come perilously close to doing so. But the Brexit negotiations look likely to be the occasion when they do so, if not at Chequers then not far down the road.

The problems at both ends of the negotiations – in Westminster and in Brussels – are that the participants at one end can see and hear precisely what is being said by the British government at the other end, and that in real time. That hardly contributes to the creation of trust, that precious commodity without which negotiations are hard to conclude; all the more so when what is being said by the government at each end is inherently contradictory.

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So this week you have Theresa May saying to Parliament that we shall be leaving the Single Market, the Customs Union and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice; and that we will be able to strike our own trade deals with third countries. All that in blithe disregard of the fact that, applied literally, that would mean new border controls between the two parts of the island of Ireland and would mean kissing goodbye to frictionless trade with the rest of the EU.

And this same week the Cabinet is contemplating putting forward in Brussels – when they have finished speed-reading the 120 pages of the draft White Paper – an approach which involves accepting many elements of remaining in the Single Market and the Customs Union and within the jurisdiction of the ECJ; and which will inhibit our ability to negotiate with third countries like the US.

No doubt semantic wonders will in due course be performed by government spokespeople – not “direct’ jurisdiction of the ECJ, you know; only covers trade in goods, not services, you realise; and so on and so forth.

And all that is before the new approach has even reached the negotiating table in Brussels, where it is all too likely, if it survives at all, to be metamorphosed into something a bit different.

This week we have been treated to the somewhat humiliating spectacle of the prime minister travelling to The Hague and Berlin to plead, not for acceptance of this new approach which she was in no position to put forward to her interlocutors, but that it not be dismissed summarily and in short order. That plea could succeed. But to what benefit other than wasting another three months of precious time?

What can be said with some degree of certainty is that none of these complexities and contradictions were even contemplated when the electorate cast their votes in the referendum two years ago. After all Boris Johnson was saying that we would remain in the Single Market and that Turkey, as an EU member would shortly have free movement right. So the case for testing whatever outcome emerges becomes daily less easy and less credible to resist.

Edited by Hugo Dixon

One Response to “May’s doublespeak could waste yet more precious time”

  • When will we arrive at the ‘enough is enough!’ and demand withdrawing from the brexit process? How can the likes of JRM and friends demand that we bear with it and suffer hardship in a British way whilst packing up their business interests to relocate to the nearest EU location? As intolerant as we are about brown people and filthy refugees we seem to have an unlimited supply of patience for the likes of Johnson, Gove and Fox to name but a few who are not in the least bit shy to shape their comments with only a passing interest in the truth.