EU renegotiation: chasing windmills in Birmingham

There is no hope that a renegotiation would be anything but a step towards exit from the EU.

Do you see over yonder, friend Sancho, thirty or forty hulking giants? I intend to do battle with them and slay them.

Perhaps Cameron will not employ the very words used by Miguel de Cervantes (some on the nationalist right of his party will probably take issue with the quotation of foreign writers) but, if recent statements are anything to go by, that will be the sentiment expressed when talking about Europe. The PM is picking a whole host of fights with the EU, in most cases against everyone’s advice, just to satisfy his Europhobic backbenchers.

From the EU budget to justice and home affairs, from fiscal union to banking union the debate is framed in terms of threats rather than opportunities. In fact, the only time the word opportunity is utilised is when talking about using the process of reform in the EU as an opportunity to remove Britain from more and more chapters of European cooperation.

That’s where the illusion starts. This nebulous concept of renegotiating Britain’s membership of the EU is the biggest red herring in the North Sea. It is used to appease those at the right and extreme right who want full withdrawal from the EU. But it is doomed to fail on all counts.

On the one hand no “renegotiation” will ever be enough for those that want to see Britain abandon the EU. The more meat the PM throws at them the more he wets their blood-thirsty appetite. In fact, in this futile effort to appease them, the PM has been compromising the national interest. The December 2011 “veto” locked the UK out of the room where important decisions about the EU’s future are taken. And the mooted opt out for justice and home affairs measures has been criticised by the police and all those involved in the nation’s security as a massive mistake that will make the fight against terrorism, illegal immigration and organised crime even harder.

On the other hand, such “renegotiation” will not be accepted by Britain’s European partners. The Polish Foreign Minister, a Conservative himself, from a country which has traditionally been considered the UK’s ally, came all the way to Oxford to say as much (£). He expressed an exasperation echoed by most EU member states with the UK’s attitude when in Brussels. The perception among our EU partners is that there seems to be more interest in grandstanding for domestic political consumption than constructively engaging to address the challenges the EU as a whole is facing. Germany, which has always been keen to keep Britain at the core of the EU, is now changing tune, with MPs from both the ruling centre right CDU and the centre-left SPD currently in opposition, saying that there is very little will to accommodate Britain’s demands for a “renegotiation”, exactly because of the spoiled child attitude displayed by the PM at European Council meetings since he came in power.

But good will aside, Britain’s hand if such a renegotiation is ever to take place will be weakened by its relative size and trading relationship with the rest of the EU. Whereas about 50 per cent of our trade is done with our EU partners, only 10 per cent of their trade is done with Britain. You do the maths.

Furthermore, why would other EU member states allow Britain to excuse itself from Single Market rules but continue ripping the benefits of Single Market membership? What is to stop others from making similar requests for exemption from areas the UK considers important? Even if the political will was there, even if Britain had the diplomatic and commercial capital to invest in such renegotiation, any concessions would imply the start of the Single Market’s unravelling, which would cost British business and households dearly.

Not to mention that it sends the wrong message; the more the UK isolates itself, the more it tries to remove itself from areas of European co-operation, the less likely it is to be able to gain support to advance areas that are of interest to us.

So instead of picking pointless battles with imaginary enemies, instead of creating impossible to fulfil expectations, the PM and his Ministers should use the EU’s decision-making structures to build alliances with Britain’s EU partners. Rather than threatening opt-outs and vetoes, the best way for Britain to address the areas of Single Market law it wants renewed is to engage constructively with others in the Council of Minister in reviewing EU laws, improving them when necessary and removing them if they have achieved their objective or have reached their sell-by date.

Don Quixote was told by his humble servant Sancho, "Now look, your grace, what you see over there aren't giants, but windmills, and what seems to be arms are just their sails, that go around in the wind and turn the millstone." The hope is that someone will awake the PM and his Europhobic backbenchers to exactly the same fact.

Some red herring. Photograph: misocrazy from New York, NY (CC-BY)

Petros Fassoulas is the chairman of European Movement UK

Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.