This is what the EU really thinks of Brexit

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This article was originally published in the Independent on the 8th January 2018.

Former US special envoy to Northern Ireland George Mitchell – who chaired the negotiations which led to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 – says the key to successfully concluding any negotiation is “to gain the best possible understanding of what we routinely call the bottom line, or the basic objectives for each party”. 

In their less guarded moments, “fantasy” and “delusion” are words commonly used by other EU member states’ ambassadors to describe our Government’s understanding of the EU’s negotiating position in the ongoing Brexit talks.

Another Mitchell dictum is that when “people aren’t really clear about their own bottom line or objectives and they’re just trying to get as much as they think they can”, that makes it very hard to bring about an agreement.  Step forward Prime Minister Theresa May. 

In 2017, May repainted so many of her red lines during the first phase of the talks that it’s no longer clear what her bottom line really is. Her eventual acceptance of a divorce bill of up to £39bn, having ruled out such vast payments last January, is just one example.

In contrast, I and other members of Parliament’s All-Party Parliamentary Group on EU Relations (which I co-chair) have followed Mitchell’s advice and have been meeting representatives of EU Governments (the EU27) over the last few months to better understand their motivations and to inform how we vote on the Withdrawal Agreement, having forced the Government to grant Parliament “a meaningful vote” last month. 

So what is the view from the other side of the negotiating table?

A senior representative of one government told me the UK lacks “a national position” on how to approach Brexit. This is self-evident. Calling a general election in 2017 and losing her majority has meant May cannot be sure to carry the Commons on Brexit matters.

In the Cabinet, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Environment Secretary Michael Gove have set out their own red lines at variance with May’s. This very public backseat driving and undermining of May has been noted in other European capitals.

The incoherence of our Government is in stark contrast to the iron discipline of the EU27 – which has undoubtedly strengthened the EU’s hand. May has sought to break their unity and lobby individual heads of EU governments – for example, by inviting fellow Prime Ministers for one-to-one private dinners at Downing Street – but I am told such offers have in the main been rebuffed. 

To get to the second phase of negotiations, the future of the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland was deliberately fudged. By common consent, it is nowhere near to being resolved. 

Ireland, which effectively holds a veto on any deal reached by the EU27 with the UK, will not sanction any breach of the principles set out in Mitchell’s Good Friday Agreement. The bottom line: no physical border. 

UK ministers believe that, in the absence of the UK being a member of the EU single market and customs union (ruled out by May), this can be achieved through the use of new technology; very few people I’ve spoken to think this is possible.

Frontbenchers from both our main parties have at times talked about aiming to “have our cake and eat it”. At the start of the process, Brexit Secretary David Davis said the goal was an agreement with the EU which will deliver the exact same economic benefits which we enjoy as a full EU member. Brexiteers asserted the EU27 would make special exception for the UK because the French want to sell us their cheese, the Italians their Prosecco and, above all, the Germans their cars.

But all those countries have many other global customers. For them, maintaining the integrity of the EU and its single market override these commercial considerations. So: no cake, and no eating of it.

Despite this, May continues to insist we will extract a bespoke deal appropriate for the UK, insisting that therefore talk of adopting the agreements Norway or Canada have with the EU as models to follow is not helpful.

The problem is that most EU governments are not clear what May thinks a bespoke UK arrangement would look like, and any such agreement on our future trading relationship with the EU will need to be finalised before the expiry of the transition period, less than two years after the scheduled March 2019 exit date.  

No diplomat I have spoken to believes it is possible to do this in such a short timeframe.

This perhaps explains why Davis has conceded the Government’s starting point is the Canada model and it wants what he calls a “Canada plus-plus-plus” model. The EU free trade agreement with Canada took seven years to finalise and, in the main, covers goods –  however, 80 per cent of our economy is services. 

Davis believes we can secure a Canada-style arrangement that extensively covers services too (hence the “plus-plus-plus” label).  However, other member states say it is notoriously difficult to get their national parliaments to ratify FTAs that cover services due to domestic political challenges.

Overall, the dominant sentiment is that far from seeking to punish the British people for voting to leave the EU, the EU27 see this whole Brexit process as “damage limitation”. They believe Brexit is bad for them and us.

If, when we see what the Brexit deal actually looks like, we want to change our minds and fight to reform the EU from within, they would be delighted.

There is unanimous acceptance that Article 50 is revocable and they would be very, very happy for the UK to continue as a member of the club. That is why it makes sense to keep an open mind on what we do at the end of these negotiations.

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