Last weekend’s Bratislava summit showed that other EU leaders’ patience with the UK is running thin. Not every European prime minister went as far as the Slovak Robert Fico, who urged the EU to make sure the UK deal is as painful as possible to send a message to the wider European public: “Listen guys, now you will see why it is important to stay in the EU.” But no member state wants Britain to be seen as coming out of its referendum with a better deal than current EU members already have.
This political context calls for statesmanlike leadership from the British government. Instead we have had the kind of political posturing that would embarrass many student unions. Such an approach will switch off other European countries at the very time when we need them to listen.
Take a fairly fundamental example: in the two years after Article 50 is triggered, is the UK merely negotiating its exit from the EU, or are we simultaneously agreeing the terms of a new EU-UK relationship? A number of powerful figures in Brussels have forcefully argued that the two negotiations need to happen one after the other: detail of our future relationship cannot be worked out until after we have left the EU.
This is a major concern for the UK. If leading European figures do not think that the two sets of negotiations should happen in parallel, British government ministers will need to carefully and diplomatically convince them that they should. Is this what David Davis has done? No; in his first – and rather vacuous – intervention on Brexit in the House of Commons, Davis dismissed the EU leaders’ view as “somewhat ridiculous”, and said that Article 50 referred to “parallel negotiations”. That is simply untrue.
The fact is that the language in Article 50 is open to interpretation and dependent on the goodwill of all parties. If the Tories want a particular outcome, they are going to need to persuade their EU counterparts of its virtue. Rather than trying to wish away the problem, a statesmanlike response would be to engage with the European institutions to explain why a parallel negotiation is not just a legitimate interpretation of the Treaty, but more importantly, in the interests of the EU and its remaining member states as well.
No one would gain from the kind of constitutional vacuum that would occur if the UK left the EU without as much clarity over the future relationship as possible. Yet Davis’s dismissive response risks pushing our European colleagues towards that view.
We are seeing the same kind of mistakes being made when it comes to trade. Davis has consistently presented our relationship with the rest of the EU in zero-sum terms, and even threatened with tariffs those very European producers which we need to stay in the UK. Rather than going on about the fact the UK exports more services than it imports, pretending that this somehow cancels out our dreadful deficit in manufacturing, a more sensible approach would be to underline how a poor deal for British products would harm European exports too. Davis should be, for example, underlining how many German manufacturers are reliant on debt financing provided by the City of London, at the same time as many German firms’ goods are bought by British companies with increasingly international supply chains.
Instead, Davis’s view of trade seems straight out of the 19th century; a world where commerce was largely in raw goods rather than complex products, and where bullyboy tactics could prevail. Indeed, the government’s approach to Brexit seems straight out of a Merchant Ivory film, with Davis and Johnson as rivals for the role of hammy British villain. In today’s world of advanced manufacturing and sophisticated, internationalised services, this approach is dangerously complacent as well as outdated.
This article originally features in The Times Red Box on 21/09/2016