UK negotiators on a different playing field

by Sam Ashworth-Hayes | 16.07.2017

The government’s three new ‘position papers’ on Brexit negotiations did not attract much press coverage on Thursday. While this is partly because the spectacularly misnamed ‘Repeal Bill’ distracted attention elsewhere, it also reflects the reality that they were pretty slim pickings for those looking to scrutinise the government.

The policy areas covered – Euratom, ongoing cases at the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), and privileges and immunities for EU bodies in the UK – are an eclectic mix, and while the papers point out issues to be resolved, they do little in terms of suggesting solutions. Mark Elliott, Cambridge Professor of Public Law, summarised the offering when he commented that the “paper on post-Brexit EU judicial proceedings sets out [very] few positions beyond the banal”.

Given the slightly anodyne nature of the papers, it’s tempting to conclude that the topics have been released as a sort of pressure valve. Euratom and the jurisdiction of European courts are very much the flavour of the week, and a pair of position papers shows that the government is at least thinking about them. This school of thought is lent some strength by the metadata for the paper on ‘privileges and immunities’, which indicates that it was last edited at 7.20 a.m. on the day of publication.

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    The tone of the Euratom paper also provides evidence that the government is attempting repairs on the go. Following a week of negative headlines, the UK is now apparently “keen to discuss this as quickly as possible in order to establish a close working relationship”.

    Alex Barker at the Financial Times offers a different explanation. He argues that the papers seek “to subtly apply some… leverage by highlighting the European interests that might be endangered”. If this is true, then the government has at least learned the art of subtlety when attempting to blackmail our European friends.

    An alternative argument would be that the policy papers point to the issues to be discussed in the next round of negotiations, and aim to provide some strength to the UK team. By publicly laying down red lines the UK can commit to a certain course, and extract concessions from the EU. This would be more likely to work if our Brexit minister had not just spectacularly caved in on an issue he promised would be the “row of the summer” – to challenge the entire order of play set out by the European Commission – and our Prime Minister had not spent the last eight weeks cultivating a reputation as the Queen of the U-turn.

    If nothing else, the papers do give the government something to point to when criticised for being overly opaque on its negotiating stance. Then again, in another sense our position has been clear for some time: we’re up the creek without a paddle.

    Edited by Quentin Peel