A pale and unconvincing story

by David Hannay | 08.11.2016

Among the host of unconvincing reasons the government is giving to justify its refusal to seek authority from both Houses of Parliament for its broad approach towards triggering Article 50, one of the least convincing is the argument that to do so would be to reveal our negotiating hand to and harm the outcome of the EU exit negotiations. To anyone with the slightest knowledge of negotiating in Brussels, that is a completely unreal concern.

For one thing the government’s opening position will be known publicly the moment it is delivered to our partners. There is no such thing as effective confidentiality in a negotiation involving 28 governments and several international institutions. So how can we justify leaving Parliament to be the last to be told what is in that position; and to have no opportunity to comment on it?

Is it so clever anyway to keep our EU partners guessing as to what our broad approach will be? One of the rules of successful international negotiation is to avoid unnecessary surprises. The timetable for the divorce talks is extremely tight, two years unless everyone concerned agrees to an extension. So why use up a good chunk of that period while the 27 other member states analyse and shape a response to our approach?

Moreover if, as the government is beginning to hint, our approach is going to go much wider than just striking a balance between trade access  and controls on immigration, the other positive elements should surely be out in the open as soon as possible. Those elements include the closest possible cooperation on internal security and the fight against international crime, foreign and security policy and over work on science and innovation. That would help shift the focus away from the zero-sum, adversarial negotiation which many on both sides of the Channel are predicting.

One of the keys to successful negotiations is that both sides should realise that there is something positive for them to gain from the outcome. So far that is sadly missing.

This was precisely the approach that Theresa May took as Home Secretary a few years ago when she advocated withdrawal from the EU’s justice and home affairs measures and negotiated to re-join 35 of them, among them membership of Europol and Eurojust and the European Arrest Warrant, which it was in our national interest to continue to apply. She came to Parliament with her broad negotiating approach and secured the approval of both Houses of Parliament to trigger withdrawal; she negotiated successfully with the EU Council and the Commission; and she came back to Parliament to endorse the outcome and only then to make the changes to our domestic legislation. Sound familiar? Look like common sense?

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Edited by Paul Taylor