It must be quite rough in the English Channel (La Manche in French, Ärmelkanal in German, both meaning ‘sleeve’) just now, with the hot wind from pre-negotiation posturing blowing up our sleeve, even if there’s little else up it.
Richard North, in his blog EUReferendum (Friday May 5), ascribes the heat and noise to justified obligations on the part of the EU and ignorance on the part of British leaders. We can see why this appears plausible but we doubt that it is the only possible interpretation. It is at least as likely that both sides are setting out, and defending, strong but incompatible political positions, which have little to do with the process of negotiating a smooth Brexit. Of course such political posturing puts at risk what will necessarily be delicate negotiations; delicate and requiring more skill than politicians are exhibiting because both sides have much to lose and, in the short term, little to gain. The attention of most politicians will be on the short term losses; not, however, on minimising them but on blaming the other side.
From Brexit Britain will lose its status and whatever privileges it has as a member of the European Union, when it becomes a ‘third country’, i.e. a non-member. The EU will lose a large member and its budget contributions and, because of its own widespread unpopularity among citizens, will risk ‘contagion’ as other countries, notably France, reconsider their own continuing membership. (It’s worth noting that 49.4% of French voters chose a Eurosceptic candidate in the first round of the presidential election.)
The agenda of EU leaders (politicians) is to minimise the risk of contagion and offset the loss of revenue. The agenda of UK leaders (politicians) is to minimise the loss of economic and other benefits of membership and retain valuable access to the single market. On one side this agenda is represented as ‘you will regret this’, while on the other side it is presented as ‘we can get a great deal’. Neither representation is helpful and both wind up the temperature and the huffing, puffing and posturing.
EU leaders regard membership of their project as superior to any other status; many third countries trade successfully with the EU and do not regard their status as inferior to membership. In a rational world, which would be one not managed by politicians, it would be possible to negotiate a change of status, from member to non-member, which retained a good deal of current benefits and minimised losses on both sides. Sadly this possibility is not at the forefront of leaders’ minds as they prepare to open the negotiations.
We offer just one example from the many possible to illustrate the bind that politicians have got us Europeans into.
From the transcript of an interview by Andrew Neil with Theresa May, printed in the Spectator on 29 March:
“And so I’ve accepted that we can’t have that membership of the single market because to do it would mean accepting things that the voters have said they don’t want. But what we can do, I believe, is to get a really good trade agreement with the European Union in terms of access for our businesses to their single market and of course for their businesses to our market.”
From the Directives for the negotiation of an agreement with the UK setting out the arrangements for its withdrawal from the EU:
“The European Council guidelines set out a two-phased approach to the negotiations. … As soon as the European Council decides that sufficient progress has been achieved to allow negotiations to proceed to the next phase, there will be new sets of negotiating directives. … these [current] negotiating directives prioritise matters which, at this stage, have been identified as strictly necessary to ensure an orderly withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the Union.”
The Prime Minister’s priority is to get a “really good trade agreement” as soon as possible. The EU’s priority is to minimise its losses and set other terms and conditions as “strictly necessary” prerequisites for negotiations on any future trade agreement. Clearly the two priorities are incompatible.
The Directives quote from the Treaty on European Union (TEU, the so-called ‘Lisbon Treaty’):
“This Agreement [the withdrawal agreement, the first phase referred to above] will set out the arrangements for the withdrawal of the United Kingdom, taking account of the framework for its future relationship with the Union.”
It seems to us that the Directives (based on the European Council guidelines, approved by the European Parliament) deliberately ignore the meaning of “taking account”. How can it be possible to take account of a framework that doesn’t exist and cannot be discussed until the withdrawal agreement has been sufficiently settled? Their demand upends the logic of their own treaties and is not a “strictly necessary” condition. The EU’s leaders are saying that negotiations CANNOT proceed to phase 2 before phase 1 is completed but they mean that negotiations MAY not proceed. This is a choice to obstruct rational progress not a compulsion.
We have not read anywhere that the UK’s politicians have put up a challenge to the Directives. It seems that both sides want this confrontation, regardless of the damage it will do.