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Stubbornness is not strength

by David Hannay | 15.06.2017

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

It is a mistake in negotiation to confuse stubbornness with strength. It is often the reverse. And yet Theresa May’s newly re-formed government looks as if it is doing precisely that.

Not even a few days delay in opening the Brexit negotiations in Brussels so that the new parliament could first express its views on the approach the government is planning to take in what is widely regarded as the most complex and challenging negotiations any British government has undertaken since the end of the Second World War. No willingness to reach out to other parties in an attempt to build a national consensus. No intention of re-visiting the hard line version of Brexit set out in the prime minister’s Lancaster House speech in January – which interestingly and worryingly is being given primacy over the less aggressively stated formulations in the March letter to the president of the European Council giving formal notification of the UK’s intention to leave the EU.

Red lines have some of the same limitations. You can as easily end up tying yourself in inextricable knots. Margaret Thatcher, who, after all, had an outstanding track record in negotiating with the EU, never did that when she was negotiating a budget rebate or the establishment of the single market. And there are an awful lot of those red lines. No to remaining in the single market. No to remaining in the customs union. No to any continuing jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. No to free movement of people. No deal is better than a bad deal.

The trouble with these red lines is that you not only sacrifice the capacity to search for compromises but that, if and when you do agree to cross one of them, you devalue all the others. Far better not to go there in the first place.

It is of course unrealistic to suppose that the government will simply ditch this litany of negatives overnight. To do so would provoke the ire of many of its supporters who, like the Bourbons returning to France in 1814, have learned nothing and forgotten nothing and who regard compromise as a dirty word. But a more open-minded approach to the initial stage of the search for solutions, with less harping on no-go areas, could pay dividends. It would enable the government to test the limits of what could be achievable. To take only one example, the need to avoid restoring border controls on goods and people moving between the two parts of Ireland, it does seem bizarre to exclude from the outset the most straightforward way of achieving that objective we share with the EU – staying in the customs union.           

Above all, it would surely make sense at this stage to stop trying to answer definitively and once and for all some of the Brexit-related questions, such as the single market and the customs union. These will need to be answered at the end of the negotiations, when parliament will have to come to a conclusion on the outcome. But insisting on answering them now, and denouncing anyone who comes up with a different approach as being enemies of the people who are seeking to nullify the view expressed in, when all is said and done, a very close vote in June 2016, is only going to deepen divisions among us and stand in the way of working for solutions which are in the national interest and in the interest of the four nations which compose it.

Meanwhile, the views of Brexiters who argue that triggering Article 50 is irrevocable have been holed beneath the waterline by President Emmanuel Macron’s generous statement that “until negotiations come to an end there is always a chance to re-open the door”. We could do with some of that generosity of spirit on this side of the Channel.

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Edited by Michael Prest