Spot the secretive bureaucracy: EU or Whitehall?

by Quentin Peel | 04.05.2017

One of the most enduring myths peddled by Brexiters about the EU is that decision-making in Brussels is furtive and secretive, utterly lacking in transparency. Little could be further from the truth, as Theresa May is finding out to her recent fury.

In the eyes of Whitehall civil servants, the Brussels bureaucracy has always been alarmingly open and prone to leak details of ongoing negotiations. The existence of 28 EU member states, each with a national axe to grind, and three EU institutions – the Commission, the Council and the Parliament – competing for influence, means that there is always someone willing and able to spill the beans.

The leaking in a German Sunday newspaper of a detailed account of May’s Downing Street dinner with Jean-Claude Juncker is an extreme example, given the degree of potentially embarrassing observations involved. But it is certainly not unprecedented.

As both sides gear up for the launch of the Brexit negotiations, which will be both ferociously detailed and acutely political, there is an imbalance between the UK on the one hand and the EU-27 on the other which goes well beyond the numerical.

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Michel Barnier, the official EU negotiator, spelt out this week how he intends to conduct his side of the exercise with total transparency. “These negotiations will be extraordinary,” he said when announcing his negotiating mandate. “They are a source of concern for many citizens and many organisations. We need to respond to that by being transparent … throughout the process. Transparency will help sustain the public debate.”

His perception could scarcely be more different from that of the UK prime minister, who has sought to keep her intentions, her government strategy, and even the organisation of her negotiating team, out of the public eye. But if the EU insists on total transparency, as Barnier says, May’s obsession with secrecy may well prove her undoing. She will be leaving the explanation of what is going on to the other side, and then inevitably be forced to react – most probably in a negative manner. She will not be in control of the narrative, let alone the process.

If May and her closest advisors understood Brussels better, they would not have got into this corner. But they seem to be more afraid about the danger of rebellion in their own ranks if they reveal their intentions too soon – whether from Brexiters or Remainers. Hence the obsession with secrecy: it has nothing to do with keeping the EU-27 guessing, and everything to do with May’s mistrust of her home base, including some of her ministers and her ruling party. That is also why she is desperate to win a much bigger majority.

The other looming problem for the UK government in the talks is that the EU side seems to be much better prepared. “The Brussels team is ready and raring to go,” according to one EU diplomat. “They are really looking forward to the process. This is exactly what they are trained to do. The British side seems still to be in a state of confusion.”

Perhaps that is why secrecy rules in Downing Street.

Edited by Hugo Dixon

4 Responses to “Spot the secretive bureaucracy: EU or Whitehall?”

  • The danger now is that the prime minister will whip up fury against the EU as reported in the Guardian today “May declares war on Brussels”. With the Tory press exaggerating all the differences in such a way that more and more people will want out at any cost.

    • Absolutely predictable and entirely agree with previous comment. If ever there was an unnecessary war it is this one. And there is the danger that the scars will remain for a long time. How long will it take the UK electorate to realise all this is absurd and that the Tory Brexiteers should be banished to the wilderness? After all if the negotiations are so important to retain friction free access to the Single Market why is the UK government proposing to leave it?

  • I agree totally with both comments above May is taking the age old we are British so there fore you will give us everything we want and because that is never going to happen she is whipping up hatred in England

  • Mrs May says that “no deal” is an acceptable fall back position. No doubt this means that she has had a “no deal” scenario mapped out and analysed. Why does she refuse to share this with the electorate?