The rules of any successful negotiation are essentially the same, whether it’s buying property, selling a business proposition or agreeing the terms of an international treaty. Three are foremost:
- Keep focused on the big picture and don’t become bogged down in early detail
- Have a walk-away option which your opposite number believes you might take
- Look after the interest group on whose behalf you are negotiating, by keeping them united and determined
None of these principles has been followed with Brexit.
The EU referendum decision was categorical and final. Both sides of the argument agreed this in advance. The Leave decision is not a radical constitutional experiment: Britain will be joining the rest of the world, which is founded on the principle of national self-government, which includes unconditional control over citizenship, borders, laws and trade policy.
This essential requirement has become sidelined by indecision in government over whether we should really leave the Customs Union and how the Northern Irish border should be managed. This has led to a proposed ‘common rule book’ with the EU and an undefined ‘mobility framework’. It does not mean self-government. Clarity of purpose has been replaced with detailed confusion.
The second requirement, a walk-away option, was removed early on by the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, who would not contemplate a complete break in any circumstance and insisted on retaining an EU-designed trade agreement with regulatory controls from Brussels. No work was done on a no-deal possibility and no planning for an exit on World Trade Organisation terms. As a result, EU negotiators knew from the start that the UK was trapped, with no alternative and nowhere else to go.
The folly of this was demonstrated by David Cameron’s failure to secure any worthwhile concessions from the EU before the referendum. By publicly announcing that he was in favour of staying in regardless, he threw away his bargaining strength. The derisory concessions he secured helped persuade people that the EU was unreformable as well as being contemptuous of national government.
The third failure has been the absence of any attempt to rally public opinion or keep intact the 52% voter majority which wanted to Leave. Instead, the whole exercise has been conducted as an opaque process of damage limitation. The opportunity to renew our democracy has been presented as a conversation about import prices. The chance to end the lies about controlling immigration, where no legal controls exist at present, has been derailed by confusion within government over the status of EU citizens.
Or take the question of damaging business regulations: successive Treasury reports have exposed the loss of economic growth caused by EU over-regulation. As chairman of a firm of housebuilders, I see at first hand the regulations which push up the price of housing and damage employment. But instead of being assured that Brexit will mean a comprehensive repeal of unnecessary red tape, we are told to accept an indefinite ‘common rule book’ with the EU, which will include our firm even though we do no trade with the EU.
So the business case for leaving the EU has not been made, allowing the CBI and their corporate bureaucrats to continue their dire warnings about what might happen to us when we are free.
At root there is a failure to understand the true nature of the EU. My own experience started as Europe Minister in 1993-94. Denmark had rejected the Maastricht treaty in a referendum, but this was not allowed and after some cosmetic adjustments they then voted to accept it. My job was to implement the treaty and the consequential changes as they affected the UK.
During the Maastricht debates, the then Prime Minister, John Major, assured the House of Commons that the centralising tendency of the EU had been halted and there would be a new respect for national and regional differences. This barely lasted a month. When the negotiations were over the tide came back in.
I sought allies amongst other member states in opposing some of the unwelcome new EU laws and regulations. Sometimes we were successful; but it was rather like a fight on an escalator – you might win it but you still arrived at the bottom. The essential dynamic was to extend central powers and expand the rule book.
Next, as a Treasury minister, I grappled with the EU budget, which was regularly failing its annual audit test. Instead of reform, the EU proposed to make it larger, by raising the amount demanded from member states to 1.27% of GNP. The Government only just got the necessary legislation through the House, with eight members of the Conservative Party voting against it and losing the whip.
I resigned from the Government in 1996 in protest at European policy and in particular the failure to rule out joining the euro, which I knew would be a disaster.
The EU is not an association of nation states coming together for certain common purposes. It is a highly self-interested bureaucracy which has one response to any problem: more Europe. Its entire legal order is founded on the principle of ever closer union.
No other group of countries in the world has followed the EU’s example and transferred their law-making powers to a central body which overrides their domestic law. The EU is stranded by history but resists any move which threatens its authority.
In 2001 I was elected to represent the House of Commons at the Convention on the Future of Europe. This two-year Convention, chaired by the ex-President of France, Valery Giscard d’Estaing, was instructed to create a Europe ‘closer to its citizens’, because it was admitted that the EU was ‘behaving too bureaucratically’. It was even proposed that some powers should be returned to member states.
The European Commission was represented by delegates of its own and provided the secretariat. They immediately took control of the agenda and the proceedings. Nothing more was heard of reform, still less of any return of powers. Instead they produced a draft Constitution for Europe, with more powers handed to the centre.
Very occasionally real Europe could be glimpsed in the background. One evening I was invited to dinner by the Hapsburg descendants of the Holy Roman Emperors. Their extraordinary history, spanning five centuries, describes a Europe of which we will always be part. To accuse critics of the EU as being ‘anti-European’ is a simple category mistake – and not very bright.
Back at the Convention, a small band of dissidents submitted a minority report calling for a Europe of Democracies, based on the principle of national self-government, but this was not debated. We felt vindicated when referendums in France and Holland rejected the European Constitution. But these expressions of popular will were ignored and the text was incorporated whole into the Treaty of Lisbon.
Ireland, heroically, held out against this subterfuge and rejected the new Treaty in a 2008 referendum. As always, they were made to try again and, under immense pressure, they accepted the Treaty the following year. In this country we were of course denied the referendum on the issue which had been promised by Tony Blair.
These events showed me that the EU is not just undemocratic but anti-democratic. Hostile to reform, centralising by instinct, it will never treat fairly a country which undermines its authority by voting to Leave.
They fear that a successful Brexit would embolden the increasing number of eurosceptic parties in the EU. It could also expose the economic weakness of the Eurozone, where the Mediterranean states, already laid waste by the euro crisis, have an unresolved debt problem.
There are no technical barriers to a Brexit deal over trade, security cooperation, dispute resolution, the Irish border and everything else. The EU is endlessly flexible when it wants to be. The entry criteria for joining the euro were overridden when it suited. The ‘no bail out’ rule in the EU treaties was ignored during the euro crisis. There are dozens of exemptions and derogations to deal with special situations when required.
This will not be achieved by present methods by which a confused compromise from a divided Cabinet is then forced into an endless series of retreats.
It is time, however late, to apply the principles of negotiating to achieve a principled Brexit.