Thursday, 27 July 2017

Brexit: paying the price for a lack of a plan

I think I am finally familiar with the British government's strategy in our Brexit negotiations: run into a Commission-imposed stumbling block, retreat and ask Number 10's PR team to force ending free movement atop the political and media agenda. It appears to be working at the moment, but I can't imagine, given how long and arduous a process these negotiations are destined to be, that it will wash for very long. 

Quite in conjunction with the history of Britain's relations with the European Community, we are tussling with the ever-delicate issue of our financial settlement. To anybody familiar with the historical record, this will not come as much of a surprise. Thatcher and Heath famously wrestled with the prospect of reducing our EEC membership bill, admittedly for an entirely different purpose. This time, as per today's Guardian report, instead of renegotiating rebates or our total contribution as a club percentage, the financial settlement (as part of the UK's EU divorce Bill) appears to be a sticking point. The report reads:

"Barnier, a former French minister, told the member states representatives at a meeting on Wednesday the UK had not matched the EU in providing clear position papers on the key issues, including the UK’s divorce bill on leaving. 
 A second EU official said Brussels feared Britain was intending to talk tough on certain issues around citizens rights, only to offer a compromise at the last minute in return for some leeway on the financial settlement. “That’s why Barnier wants the issues of the citizens rights and the financial settlement done at the same time, not one after the other”, the source said.
The UK negotiating team further feel that they do not need to provide matching position papers in order for talks to be successful. “That might be what they want, but that’s not what is going to happen”, the source said."

Then, as the report came through, it was quickly displaced by comments made by the Home Secretary about free movement lasting up to March 2019. Whether it was a deliberately timed intervention or not is besides the point. The government knows that it can use a hard stance on free movement as a blockade against concerning reports on negotiations elsewhere. When in doubt, make a fuss about ending mass EU migration and distract the population. To me, all this does is symbolise the need for a coherent plan when embarking upon enormous political tasks like Brexit. As I write, I realise that Vote Leave's decision to leave the door open, so to speak, on a Brexit plan is now backfiring. Ministers have the mandate and research on public opinion to be able to make noise about issues they have absolutely no idea how to tackle in practice. 

And a series of White Papers, even if they do coincide with the European Union's, which they won't, won't be enough. Theresa May has during her tenure as Prime Minister appeared to work by the mantra that a White Paper is all you need to solve the issue of the day. Publish a White Paper and everything will be dandy. As a result of this incompetence, trade talks probably won't begin productively until 2018. The financial settlement is in my view a difficult issue to address and I think it will take a long time to sort out. European leaders have a history of awkwardness when dealing with the UK's budgetary and financial requests. I sometimes wish Britain was not the first to leave the European Union; at least that way we'd have some sort of template with which to work. I suppose that is what you ask for when you are the club's most openly sceptical member. 

Talk of a £75bn divorce payment will only fuel support for the fallacy that 'no deal is better than a bad deal'. The European Union knows that we do not owe them a penny in leaving. We have spent many billions on membership despite years of reluctance. I suspect that for the Commission, the idea is to rinse us of every extra billion they can so as they are able to set aside a budget for continued subsidies for poorer members of the Union, most being Northern and Eastern European countries. This will probably be where Brexit causes the most frustration in Brussels: the knowledge and realisation that since 1973 we have been a useful cash cow and source of funding. I think the second paragraph quoted above could well be a prophetic summary of the progression of negotiations. 

Which is a shame, given that all we needed before all of this started was a plan. A comprehensive Brexit strategy would have given us flexibility and a deeper understanding of the options at our disposal. We wouldn't need to sound the free movement alarm every five minutes in order to appear productive. And we wouldn't be stumbling at every conceivable negotiating hurdle either. At this rate, the two-year Article 50 period will be up before we've even discussed the Common Fisheries Policy. 

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