Expert View

Six biggest steps in the wrong direction on Brexit

by David Hannay | 05.11.2018

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

With Brexit negotiations entering a secretive phase known as the “tunnel” this week, speculation of an imminent deal – or total breakdown of talks – is everywhere. It therefore seems fitting, at this important juncture, to look back and tot up the list of mistakes the government has made in these negotiations. There is no lack of them and every one was an unforced error.

1. Setting a date for triggering Article 50 without having a plan

That is precisely what the Prime Minister did when she told the Conservative party conference in October 2016 that Article 50, with its two year cut off date, would be triggered, willy-nilly by the end of March 2017. And instead of working up a plan and a negotiating strategy over the next five months, the government devoted all its time and energy to a failed attempt to deny Parliament the right to authorise the move.

2. Drawing red lines which ruled out a soft Brexit – making the avoidance of new border controls in Ireland almost impossible

The prime minister’s Lancaster House speech in January 2017 – now regarded by Brexiters as the tablets of Moses – ruled out staying in the single market and the customs union, and insisted that the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice would end on exit day. In this way a number of potentially promising avenues were ruled out before the negotiations had even begun. Ever since, the prime minister has been forced to smudge those red lines – most obviously with the provisions for a transitional period and in the Chequers plan of July 2018 – while insisting that “nothing has changed”.

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3. Accepting a sequencing of negotiations that disadvantaged the UK

The government triggered Article 50 on March 29 2017 without making any attempt to challenge the guideline on sequencing the negotiations in a way that disadvantaged the UK. This fundamental error, which has bedevilled the negotiations ever since and which David Davis made no attempt to contest when the negotiations began, has ensured that absolute priority was given to the terms of withdrawal and almost no serious effort has been put into laying the foundations for a new, post-Brexit relationship with the EU. It makes it almost certain that, in any deal struck in the next few weeks, that the new relationship will be more of a fudge than a secure basis for the future.

4. Agreeing to an Irish backstop in December 2017 without having the slightest idea as to how it was to be implemented

Ever since that agreement in principle was reached on the backstop the government has turned down every effort to convert it into a legally binding text, which it has to be in the Withdrawal Treaty. The latest twist in the tale is to propose a short lengthening of the transitional period as a substitute for an insurance backstop. That will not fly.

5. Accepting a grossly inadequate 21-month transitional period back in March 2018

No one involved in negotiating with the EU believes that this is sufficient to avoid a cliff edge in December 2020. At the very least the government should have insisted on a provision enabling the transitional period to be extended by common accord. Now there is talk of extension by “a few months”. Again, inadequate.

6. Wasting all of March to July 2018 in internal Tory wrangling over the government’s plan for a new relationship

The Chequers plan, now it has finally emerged, has few friends and a substantial part of it – the proposed customs arrangement for trade in goods – is simply unnegotiable in the form it was put forward. Meanwhile trade in services, which make up 80% of today’s UK economy, has been left on the beach.

Is there nothing on the positive side of the ledger? Not really. We are asked to admire the prime minister’s resilience in the face of adversity in Brussels and dissension in her own party. Her resilience is indeed remarkable. But is that a virtue when it is taking the country in the wrong direction?

Edited by Luke Lythgoe

5 Responses to “Six biggest steps in the wrong direction on Brexit”

  • And we’re supposed be having a new 50p coin to “celebrate” leaving the EU? I think black armbands all round would be more appropriate.

  • This article says that mistakes were made, i.e. that Brexit could have been done better. This is nonsense. The only good Brexit is NO Brexit.

  • The biggest “mistake” was for David Cameron to arrogantly believe that he could resolve an insoluble, decades-long internal Tory Party dispute by involving the whole nation in a gerrymandered and sloppily organised referendum – which we now know was riddled with cheating and fraud.

  • It is extremely sad to witness how a great nation makes an attempt at voluntary suicide. According to statistics, the majority of those who voted for brexitis are elderly and poorly educated. Which simply do not represent the consequences of this step. What is at stake is not only the country’s economy and the financial well-being of all the inhabitants of the country, but also the existence of the United Kingdom as we know it.

  • May is continuing with this so-called negotiation because she feels she has to see it through despite the fact that she is involved in an un-doable project. The woman lacks emotional intelligence and is totally unsuited to being PM.