Expert View

A time for cool heads on Brexit

by David Hannay | 09.06.2017

On the last day of campaigning in the general election Theresa May for the first time made a sensible comment on Brexit in place of the mindless mantras with which the electorate had been being fed. “Brexit,” she said, “is the basis for everything else”. She cannot at that time have envisaged the circumstances in which this precept would have to be given effect. But it remains as valid today in the aftermath of the election and with a hung parliament outcome as the day it was uttered.

No doubt the electoral setback to the Conservatives has many other complex causes, but the election was quite explicitly called, three years earlier than necessary, in order to get a popular mandate for the Brexit negotiations scheduled to start on 19 June. That is what the prime minister asked for; and that is what she failed to get. So there is no mandate for the sort of hard Brexit approach set out in the January Lancaster House speech and in the 29 March letter to Donald Tusk. That approach is unlikely to command a majority in the new parliament . So to try to move ahead on that basis would surely be a travesty of the democratic process.

In the confused and unpredictable parliamentary situation that now exists, with the distinct possibility of another general election taking place before the expiry of the two year Article 50 deadline in March 2019, it would seem sensible to avoid trying to answer too many of the fundamental Brexit-related questions at once. Those who believe that any outcome to the negotiations should be submitted to a second referendum will continue to take that view. But there is no sense and no need to try to settle that now. We are at the beginning of the negotiations not near to their end. And a period of silence about the zany idea that no deal would be better than a bad deal would also be welcome.       

What is needed is a more flexible, positive and open-minded approach than was previously envisaged. Why on earth try to rule out from the outset continued membership of the single market and the customs union, particularly when either of those two frameworks would provide the most straightforward and effective way of avoiding the re-imposition of border controls in Ireland? Why splatter red lines about the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and about the absolute primacy of restrictions on the free movement of people which have yet to be devised?

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Better, surely, to move forward with a clear and generous offer to protect the status of EU citizens here and of our citizens in other member states; and to spell out in clear and non- transactional terms the new partnership we are seeking in the fields of security, of research and of foreign policy. Such an approach ought to be able to get cross-party support in the new parliament and thus to provide the government with the sort of opening mandate it needs if it is to be taken seriously by our negotiating partners.

Would it not be sensible too to submit such an approach for approval to parliament before negotiations begin in Brussels? If that means a short delay in the June 19/20 date for opening negotiations, that should not be a drama, given the fact that serious negotiations are unlikely to get under way until after the German elections in September. In any case to open negotiations on the day of the Queen’s Speech and before either House of Parliament has had an opportunity to debate the new government’s programme, let alone to approve it, would seem a dangerous short cut.

The outcome of the election certainly does not make the Brexit negotiations any easier, but nor does it necessarily make a successful outcome to those negotiations less likely. What are needed in the new circumstances are cool heads and a more consensual, less ideological, step by step approach.

Edited by Hugo Dixon

6 Responses to “A time for cool heads on Brexit”

  • May made a fustian pack with a set of politicians driven by ideological thinking and unfounded claims, rather than evidence based policy. Ukip are all but wiped out electorally. I hope our long standing parliament will now be in a better position to fight for a growing number of voices opposed to the undermining of our country by self serving politicians unwilling to compromise and negotiate with EU.

  • A very good and sensible article, but can May, Johnson, Davis et al shed their ideological dogma? Their record suggests not.

  • An extract from the appended Guardian article ” 5 possible scenarios”

    “By insisting on a high divorce bill and no hint of trade concessions unless Britain gives up its hopes of restoring sovereignty, the EU could easily leave Theresa May, or any British prime minister, with the same hard choice between no deal and and a bad deal.’

    The article also recalled that the EU had rebuffed Cameron’s attempts to negotiate softer freedom of movement approaches, suggesting that Britain might now be in a stronger position to pursue this.

    I look forward to seeing IN FACTS recognise that a successful Brexit will require flexibility on both sides. For let’s face it, flexibility has throughout been in short supply from the rEU. Only too often, Commission and Council behave with bureaucratic inflexibility, cleaving to the freedoms in the treaties in a way that can appear capricious. We have seen Mrs Merkel refuse to compromise on this score with David Cameron on the grounds that the treaties were immutable, but then showing herself willing to be open to argument when Emmanuel Macron raised the issue with her some years later.

    I happen to think that each member state of the EU has its own way of addressing issues, according to its own logic. These things are more plural than universal. Even so, the 25 tend to toe the line when Germany and France are of one mind ( not always of course – witness the issue of allocating migrants between member states). The agreed scenario then becomes some immutable EU doctrine. In this kind of way, the EU have set their negotiating terms, and these have now become immutable. But that isn’t the way to successful negotiations. The rEU could do well by tempering their uber rational approach with a little flexibility, pragmatism and open mindedness. It’s the only way to tango.

  • Cameron was no statesman! He always put himself and the Tory party before the nation. He took the Conservatives out of the European People’s Party in the European Parliament so he could gain the support of the eurosceptics in his battle for the leadership contest against David Davis. The disadvantage of that was he couldn’t hope to garner support in Europe when he then tried to change treaties. Besides no-one in Europe could understand his demands for changing the rules on free movement of people because within EU rules any country can ask an EU citizen who hasn’t found work within another EU country to leave after 3 months and they will not be entitled to claim any benefits. This rule is now and was never enforced in the UK (unlike other EU countries) because there exists no system in place to enforce it (no IDs, no registering etc.) I even doubt whether the Home Office is actually aware of this rule! On BBC Question Time, Douglas Carswell said he was unaware of it and even said that we probably wouldn’t have voted to come out of the EU if we’d known about this. I sincerely hope British negotiators are better informed on how the EU functions and the legalities during the upcoming negotiations.

  • Perhaps we could make a start with informing UK citizens about what the EU actually is, what it’s there for and that the clche’s about Germans, French, Spanish, Hungarians and the rest do not apply any longer as all those countries are at least as multicultural as the U.K. is and have changed considerably since WWII or the Napoleonic days. And they do not apply to the EU as an institution in any case. Perhaps it would calm down fears about foreigners and actually show them up as human beings after all. And you can talk to most of them, quite a lot have learned to speak English. It could be the enlightening exercise that finally gets Brits to accept that there is more to the world than the Conservative party and its needs. Never mind that it could pave the way for continentals to accept that not all Brits are out of their skull.

  • Theresa May must radically widen her circle of advisers on Brexit. She is too much the prisoner of the Hard lobby of Davis, Fox, Johnson, Duncan Smith, Redwood and Jenkin. And of course she is scared stiff of the Daily Mail. She said she called the Election because she was worried about obstructions to Brexit from Labour, Lib Dems, SNP and the Lords, but the obstacles will now surely be immeasurably greater. So logic says she’s not going to get Brexit through the Commons and the Lords may now be emboldened to speak its mind. She has to change her stance on the Single Market or her programme will now be blocked by Parliament (both Houses).

    Membership of the Single Market is crucial for business interests, as well as many individual’s’ rights stemming from it. However, it may be possible to negotiate a deal to maintain tariff free access, whilst taking control over fishing and agriculture, such as Iceland or Switzerland have done. We would still have to make contributions to the EU budget, but these could be significantly lower than what we currently contribute.
    Obviously, it makes most economic sense to stay in the EU, but if this is politically impossible, an alternative