User Menu

Brexit negotiations will be brutal, nasty and potentially short

Chris Johns: In face of cohesive EU stance, UK may seek to exploit national differences

Britain’s prime minister Theresa May: perhaps if we had any idea at all about where she was willing to compromise, we could begin to sketch the outlines of a deal. Photograph: Jeff Overs/BBC Handout via Reuters

Both sides have now staked out their initial Brexit negotiating positions. The UK, via Theresa May’s key speeches and article 50 letter, wants to retain all the benefits of the single market while avoiding all of its obligations. This is dressed up in the form of a request for a “comprehensive free trade deal” while insisting on no free movement of people, a withdrawal from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and a “bonfire of regulations”. This, presumably, is the UK government’s way of putting flesh on the original idea of “having cake and eating it”.

Unusually, the EU’s response has been simple, firm, coherent and unified. The UK must be worse off after it leaves. There will be no sectoral approach to free trade, no cherry picking of any kind. The rights of citizens are central to the EU’s sense of itself and must be protected. These are ideas that just irritate the average Tory cabinet minister.

If there is to be a free trade agreement it will not be like – it will be inferior to – the one the UK has at the moment: that’s the single market. So, if there is to be a negotiated settlement it will revolve around the issue of how much harm is to be inflicted on the UK economy. Seen in this light, it is easy to see how the negotiations are likely to be brutal, nasty and potentially very short.

Unanticipated effect

Brexit has already had one rather large unanticipated effect: European summits rarely, if ever, make big decisions, make any kind of decision quickly and never see heads of government burst into spontaneous applause a few minutes after sitting down together. Of course, British politicians and their handlers in the media have responded with cries of “blackmail” and “bullying”. European unity are not words that often peacefully coexist unless when used as an example of an oxymoron. It is easy to see why the British feel put out: Vladimir Putin or Slobodan Milosovich never encountered this degree of EU purpose or determination.

So far at least, Europe does seem to have got its act together. Theresa May has dismissed all this as a mere negotiating position, one that she clearly hopes can be dismantled. My guess is that she still hopes to exploit national differences and split apart the unified 27-country approach she currently faces. She will be dismayed by the refusal to do sectoral deals: the UK has clearly been hoping for something specific for cars and financial services.

If there was to be a sacrifice in this area, I suspect the British were going to offer up their farmers. Agriculture is still very important in Europe, not least to the French, and a British offer to shaft their own farming community in return for favourable treatment for the banks and carmakers might have gone down well in parts of France and one or two other countries.

All of this represents a poor start to a difficult negotiation. Essentially, the British have listed their demands and Europe has said, firmly, no. While it is possible, in principle, to see how talks could produce a settlement, it all becomes extremely murky once we start to think about the details. Perhaps if there was a single hint of “maybe” in the EU’s opening position, things would be easier. Perhaps if we had any idea at all about where Theresa May is willing to compromise – or even if she is – we could begin to sketch the outlines of a deal.

Transitional arrangement

What is clear is that once the UK election is over we are on a five-year Brexit timetable. The UK will leave in March 2019 followed by a three-year transitional arrangement. But only if the negotiations go well. A key event for those negotiations will be Theresa May’s first cabinet reshuffle. This will most likely take place in the middle of June, shortly after her landslide general election victory. Will Johnson, Fox and Davis, the three hapless Brexiteers, keep their jobs? If Britain is serious about negotiations, at least two of these men will have to be replaced by proper politicians. The choice of their replacements will be very revealing of May’s intentions, about which we still know so little.

I doubt whether many of those European leaders meeting over the weekend know or care much about English history. But the words of Oliver Cromwell to the Rump Parliament would probably resonate: “You have sat too long for any good you have been doing lately . . . depart, I say and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!” British politicians often quote Cromwell: Leo Amery did it when trying to force Neville Chamberlain’s resignation at the start of the second World War, the single event that gave birth to what is now the EU. It is beyond ironic, in so many different ways, that Europe simply wants the British to go.