A warning to those who want the government to reveal its Brexit blueprint
Justin Protts, 12 October 2016
Today the Labour Party set out a list of questions asking publically for details of the government’s negotiation plans. If answered by government, such questions could seriously undermine the UK’s chances of a good outcome.
Despite constant complaints about the lack of clarity over Brexit and the UK government’s demands, it seems to me perfectly clear what is wanted. Theresa May’s speech at the Conservative Party conference, and the subsequent appearance of David Davis in the House of Commons, made it perfectly clear. What is not clear is what the European Union and its 27 members are willing to offer the UK, and there is value in that.
In her speech, the Prime Minister set out quite clearly what the vote to leave means for the UK: ‘We are going to be a fully-independent, sovereign country, a country that is no longer part of a political union with supranational institutions that can override national parliaments and courts. And that means we are going, once more, to have the freedom to make our own decisions on a whole host of different matters, from how we label our food to the way in which we choose to control immigration.’
This passage, with the mention of courts, food labelling (market regulation), and immigration, makes it clear that the Prime Minister sees parliamentary control over these issues as paramount to leaving the EU. This, combined with the statement that the UK will ‘win trade agreements with old friends and new partners’, makes it clear that she intends to deliver on the primary reason for which the UK voted to leave the EU – to allow decisions about the UK to be taken in the UK.
Though this will mean leaving the customs union, and probably the single market, reducing access to EU markets is clearly not a goal unto itself. Later in the speech the PM reiterated this: ‘I want it to give British companies the maximum freedom to trade with and operate in the Single Market – and let European businesses do the same here. But let me be clear. We are not leaving the European Union only to give up control of immigration again. And we are not leaving only to return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.’
The government has still not explicitly ruled out staying in the single market and has not announced what deal it expects, or is even trying to negotiate. This approach makes sense. The UK government is clearly aware it is unlikely to get a deal that gives the same level of access to the single market while withdrawing from the jurisdiction of the EU courts and taking full control of migration and trade policy. However, maintaining current levels of access while delivering on Brexit as described by the PM is what would be best for the UK economy, best for business, and would cause the least economic damage to both the UK and the EU.
If possible, this position would be ideal and fully respected the vote to leave on the mantra of ‘take control’, but negotiations do not work like that. Remainers, avid supporters of the single market and those parliamentarians determined to hear or vote on the UK government’s Brexit plans, are in reality asking the UK government to publicly announce the areas where they are willing to compromise.
It is notable that the European Union’s negotiators have also not gone around shouting about their plans and what they are willing to negotiate with the UK. The phrase is not ‘No Notification, No Negotiation… but you’ll probably get a free trade deal and transitionary measures for services until a new agreement is reached.’ Instead EU leaders have been out in force – making threats.
The EU has to balance the job of protecting its own economic interests and making it look like the UK has not gained from leaving. A strong hand for the UK is to allow the EU to claim credit for pushing the UK out of the single market. If the UK government openly admits it does not intend to remain a member of the single market (as supposed to heavily implying it) then the EU cannot claim to have forced us out, so the EU will have to push the UK even further in negotiations.
In fact, the more the UK government reveals, the more the EU will have to push back and make it look like an EU win. This has the potential to damage not only the UK’s economy but the entire EU’s. The current posturing on both sides is necessary to allow the EU and UK to portray the outcome as a win while still maintaining positive trade relations. The last thing anyone in the UK or EU should want is to force the EU to come down harder than necessary.
That is not to say the UK should be complacent. If the UK really wants to strengthen its hand then every UK politician, rather than making damaging demands of our government, should be united pointing out to the EU the importance of UK trade and making it clear that it will be the EU, not the UK, that is responsible for the economic harm awaiting Europe if trade barriers rise.