Peter Sutherland: Little reason to delay talks on Britain’s EU exit

The possibility of a fresh referendum is the only argument for not triggering Article 50

Boris Johnson addresses the media claiming that 'project fear' in relation to Britain voting to leave the EU is over. Video: Reuters


A couple of days ago, European Commission president Jean- Claude Juncker commented that the marriage of the United Kingdom with the European Union had never been a happy one and the divorce would not be amicable.

As to the first of these points, from the outset 60 years ago, in the lead-up to the European Coal and Steel Community of 1951 the continental powers (supported by the United States secretary of state) deliberately kept Britain in the dark because they knew it would oppose the whole idea.

Later, in the lead-up to the conclusion of the Treaty of Rome at the discussions held in Messina on the potential advance, Britain sent a relatively low-level civil servant who, before the end, stood up from the table and left early.

Since this inauspicious beginning the essential antagonism of much of the political establishment and print media in Britain and the European project has remained constant and virulent. Scarcely ever has there been a concerted good word been uttered about European integration and there has been constant opposition to virtually all proposed advances (except to the internal market and enlargement).

Furthermore the United Kingdom has always basically opposed budget increases and the common policies of the European Union such as those in agriculture and to provide regional or social transfers from the richer states to the poorer. The amazing thing is that notwithstanding this negative backdrop the British people (who are basically moderate and tolerant) still returned, in the EU referendum, a vote of 48 per cent in favour of remaining in the union.

Mendacity and recklessness

Boris JohnsonMichael GoveIain DuncanBrexit

But we are where we are. No doubt the cynically destructive Brexit leaders will draw comfort from the damage that they have caused within the EU and, as they have done in the past, they will point with pride to their fellow travellers in France, Italy and the Netherlands. They will also seek to qualify their own positions, as Boris Johnson is, predictably, already doing.

History will judge what has happened as a monumental mistake. It cannot be dismissed with a wry grin and as a temporary little matter. It puts the mistake of Suez in the halfpenny place.

The reality is that any accommodation that is remotely foreseeable for a future external association with the EU following article 50 negotiation will leave the UK in a greatly weakened state. It will also have other consequences, including the possible dissolution of the UK.

For one thing, if Britain is to be in the internal market for goods then it will have to accept, on all existing precedents, free movement of people, the application of EU rules and regulations that it will have no part in framing and make substantial contributions to the EU budget.

Even then it would not have full access to the internal market in services such as banking (and this will deliver a devastating blow to the British economy). This was all explained before the referendum and denied by the Brexiteers but it is the clear reality today. The UK foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, said as much on June 26th.

This is therefore a disastrous situation. It explains the turmoil in the main political parties. Although it is arguable, I do not agree with those who would delay giving notice of withdrawal and triggering article 50 negotiations. There is no valid reason for delay unless a fresh referendum before the negotiations begin is even remotely possible.

In such a case by all means delay. Otherwise to do so seems almost demeaning. The world has seen the outcome and has been damaged by it too. The British civil service has had a long time to prepare for this moment. I have no doubt it has done so. The opening of discussions can take place on numerous preliminary matters that do not require the political leadership of a more permanent prime minister.


Nobody in their right mind should want an acrimonious negotiation, least of all people in Ireland. Britain is and should remain a friend.

If the step already taken in the referendum is irreversible (and I hope that it is not) then we must make the best of it for all concerned.

While the options of being a full part of the common market but not being in the EU is not viable (as it would signal the end of the EU itself) we must help to find a way to live harmoniously in a radically changed world.

The protection of our interests, however, must recognise that the real focus of our negotiations has to be fundamentally around the survival of the EU and this means any compromise cannot threaten that survival.

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