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15 December 2017updated 09 Sep 2021 5:57pm

Britain is learning that progress is a slow process

Are we nearly there yet?

By Anand Menon

So far so good. We’ve achieved “sufficient progress”, whatever that means (and there is precious little agreement on what it does). Nevertheless, we should all be grateful. Failure this week would have implied yet more political and economic uncertainty.  

Yet the way progress has been achieved bodes ill for the future. The British approach has involved alienating partners on whom we will depend in the months and years to come. While Theresa May has done well to keep the show on the road – reconciling contradictory domestic and EU-level pressures – the way the government has approached the talks is unsustainable and storing up real problems for the future. There is a madness to the government’s method.

As the negotiations have progressed, a pattern has emerged.  The British government has talked a good game, engaging in bouts of chest thumping rhetorical obstructionism, while ultimately caving in to EU demands. The rhetoric has appealed to the Brexiters; the actions have appeased the EU.

Think back to June, when David Davis famously promised the “row of the summer” over the sequencing of the negotiations. He argued – quite rightly – that the timetable proposed by the EU would “back Britain into a corner”, forcing us to agree to pay money prior to sorting out future trading relations. Yet at the first bilateral meeting, on 20 June, British negotiators agreed to that timetable.

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister declared in the spring that Britain had no legal obligation to cover EU spending commitments. Subsequently, Boris Johnson told the House of Commons the EU could “go whistle” for its money.  And then, the Cabinet conceded a net bill in the region of £55bn. The joint report on the progress of negotiations proposes a clever compromise: the EU will get its liabilities – when they fall due. So the UK will not hand over a cheque immediately. Nevertheless, the principle is clear. The UK will be paying.

This Janus-faced approach has helped the government achieve its short-term objective of proceeding to phase two. And no one can blame Theresa May for looking to the short term. Government by small steps is probably the only option she has, given Cabinet divisions and parliamentary arithmetic. Tough language assuages Brexiter fears. Last minute concessions allows Mrs May to press-gang potential opponents into accepting the terms she agrees.

However, success to date may have come at a longer-term cost. The Brexit negotiations are set to last for years. Nick Macpherson, former Permanent Secretary at the Treasury, has claimed that even a relatively unambitious “Canada-style” trade deal cannot realistically be agreed before 2024.

And here, the attitude of our partners becomes important. During the article 50 talks, the UK has enjoyed some leverage, as Brussels is anxious to receive a divorce payment.  Once we are out, however, this negotiating chip will be lost. And the goodwill of our partners will be more important than ever. Not least as the government seems to be angling for some sort of outcome involving “alignment” with EU rules while being free of the institutions generally used to ensure such alignment. For anything like this, trust will be the key.

Yet the Government has squandered what trust there was. Britain’s apparent willingness to treat EU citizens as bargaining chips inflamed opinion in their home states. An Italian Minister claimed to be “offended” following Boris Johnson’s claim that Italians did not want to lose Prosecco sales to the UK and hence would make concessions.

Meanwhile, anger in the Republic of Ireland has mounted as the British government played fast and loose with the prospect of a hard border between the north and south of the island. It was this growing frustration that led to the carefully coordinated escalation with the EU’s article 50 Task Force.

And barely had the ink dried on our agreement with the EU, then Ministers have begun to unpick it.  On the Andrew Marr show on 10 December, Brexit Secretary David Davis argued that the deal signed by Theresa May was not “legally enforceable” and merely a “statement of intent”. Moreover, while reports emerged that advisers to the Prime Minister had assured Boris Johnson and Michael Gove that the notion of “full alignment” with EU law that had been used to secure Irish consent “doesn’t mean anything in EU law” and was hence “meaningless”. 

Gove himself intimated – following his expression of support for what the Prime Minister had achieved – that Britain could diverge from EU laws in the future should it so wish. Indeed, evidence is already emerging that Brexit supporters in the Cabinet see their support for a deal that some have interpreted as guaranteeing a soft Brexit as a negotiating chip to be cashed to ensure a hard one.

Such talk, coming so soon after the signing of the agreement, has not exactly done wonders for our reputation as a reliable partner, as European Parliament negotiator Guy Verhofstadt has stated. Not that that reputation was exactly unimpeachable even beforehand.

Britain’s EU partners have long harboured suspicions about out motives, particularly when it comes to economic policy. Decades of British rhetoric about “Brussels regulation” have convinced many on the continent that, free of the shackles of the EU, Britain would turn itself into a low regulation off shore corporate haven. And Philip Hammond seemed merely to confirm this suspicion with his ill-considered comments in January that seemed to threaten the EU with a deregulated UK on its border in the event that a trade deal could not be struck.

Do we really think, given our track record, that member states will really take us at our word when it comes to issues such as “alignment”? Is it really conceivable that they will believe what we say, having watched Mrs May and her government spend the last year saying one thing at home and another over there?  The Brexit talks have barely begun. Was it really wise to get here via tactics guaranteed to lose friends and alienate people?

Anand Menon is director of The UK in The UK in a Changing Europe and professor of European Politics and Foreign Affairs at King’s College London. 

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