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Expert View

We must nail down future partnership before Brexit

by David Hannay | 02.07.2018

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

As attention turns to the Cabinet’s away day on Friday at Chequers, ministers would do well to listen carefully to what George Bridges told the BBC Today programme last week. The former Brexit minister had four main messages: stop lobbing hand grenades at each other from pre-conceived trenches; go for a customs union and full regulatory alignment for goods, but not services; nail down the agreement on a new partnership this autumn rather than leave it until after Brexit; and prepare seriously for a “no deal” outcome as a negotiating ploy.

My own take on those pieces of advice is: first is quixotic; second is conceivable if the red line on dispute settlement is thrown in; third is spot on; and fourth is plain wrong.             

Lobbing grenades is all the Brexiters in and outside the Cabinet know how to do. They have not produced a single idea since the referendum campaign began which has a snowball’s chance in hell of being agreed by the EU 27. They are probably not going to stop their grenade lobbing now, so the journey might have a better chance of success if they left the train at this point. But do not hold your breath.

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The second prescription might conceivably be acceptable to the EU 27 if a robust dispute settlement procedure involving a role for the European Court of Justice were part of it. The only way to find out is to try it out. It could, in addition, solve the Ireland/Northern Ireland border problem. It would leave little space for the UK to negotiate about trade with third countries.

The third piece of advice, to get all this nailed down in the autumn and not left over to be negotiated after the UK has left must be right. Anyone who seriously believes we will be better placed to negotiate with the EU from outside must either be deluded or is a closet supporter of “no deal”.

What about the fourth piece of advice – that we set in hand preparations for a “no deal” outcome, not as an objective (Bridges was admirably clear about just how damaging such an outcome would be for the UK), but as a negotiating ploy to get a better deal? Rather an expensive ploy one might have thought.

But in any case Bridges’ advocacy is seriously awry. He said: “Without that, the EU will always have the upper hand”. Unfortunately that is the case with or without those preparations, because they know and we know too that we would be more severely damaged by a “no deal” outcome. Better surely to be a little realistic about the real balance of forces?

Edited by Hugo Dixon