Dr Lee Rotherham has advised three Shadow Foreign Secretaries; was Chief of Staff to the Conservative delegate to the Convention on the Future of Europe, and and was Director of Special Projects at Vote Leave during the referendum.
Downing Street is assembling a transitional Brexit team, to give a head start to the next Prime Minister when he arrives in Downing Street. What advice might one float towards Oliver Letwin as he begins that daunting task? Here are ten suggestions.
- Pick a team that actually believes in Brexit… Those who were quiescent in salami slicing and ‘managing decline’ will also lack ambition today. Now is a good time to promote capable staff within Whitehall who have the necessary confidence in themselves and in their nation. It’s also incumbent to put out to grass those figures who enthusiastically cashed in diplomatic chits and called in favours to support Remain, despite the impartiality required by the Civil Service Code.
- …And then recruit subject matter experts to plug gaps. Predictably, one former mandarin has already suggested the Foreign Office isn’t up to scratch, and needs to recruit thousands of staff to cope with Brexit. This is a sad indictment, but more of him than of them. Putting aside the well-thumbed copy of Northcote-Parkinson maxims for a moment, there is one valid underlying point. A few dozen specialists recruited from Commonwealth states, and targeted bagging of defecting Brits from the Commission itself, would prove valuable investments in the coming years.
- Run a ‘reverse accession’. Accession countries have their qualifying criteria divvied up into 35 chapters. Negotiators should use the same process in reverse. They should swiftly find that four-fifths of them turn out to be largely negotiation-friendly, because the UK is already compliant with the standards and systems expected to facilitate trade and cooperation. Where negotiations in an area do drag on, then they should sign off what is agreed and start work on separate treaties to cover the rest. Better a 90 per cent-95 per cent transitional deal now than a 100 per cent deal delivered in a timeframe of some years.
- Reboot the little grey cells. The Commission tacitly admits that it operates through many varied categories of trade deals with countries: it even has 42 assorted names for them. Different types of economies have different ranges of options. Leaders of a highly regulatory and historically-challenged state that exports a lot to EU neighbours, such Belgium, will understandably be happier bearing and offloading the costs of close integration. However, the UK is at the other end of the trade spectrum. So our ‘Goldilocks zone’ in orbit around the Brussels star, whereby we’re neither too close and “hot” nor too far away and “chilly”, finds us benefiting from a more distant political relationship than others would. What this means, in short, is that negotiators should not be obsessed by Single Market membership, which has become politically totemic and economically idolatrised. Its costs are high for the UK compared with the alternatives that have emerged in the last 20 years. We also won’t know which of the range of several options that will work best for us – out of those 42 existing variations – are on the table until we ask. And no one has yet asked.
- Ground up, not roof down. Whitehall’s natural default will be to seek to preserve the current status quo and cautiously peel back from what presently stands. Negotiators need to instead question everything from first principles. Each element of cooperation should be reviewed, argued, and only retained on its individual merits. The default should be that powers return; that competences return, and that management of policy returns to domestic control, unless a case is successfully and individually made that activity is beneficial, effective, cost-efficient, and accountable when done in tandem with the EU. Negotiators may, having completed that audit, often find that the right level is more global.
- The essentials are non-negotiable, but the mechanisms may stand correction in an equilibrium. For example, Spanish pressure over Gibraltar must not justify our diplomats caving in over Spanish fishing access to British territorial waters. But if Madrid plays fair by the border at La Linea, we should play fair with ensuring a decent transition for its fishermen. Again, if Spain honours the acquired rights of British expats currently in Spain, we must obviously do likewise for its expats. Let’s also accept that honest concerns do exist in other capitals. For example, Madrid may be proven correct in suggesting the UK is underpaying for health cover for UK nationals in Spain, thanks to faulty consulate assessments of numbers, just as the UK is currently subsidising healthcare provision for other EU nationals in the UK (largely a failing, it would seem, of NHS managers). Play fairly to be treated fairly.
- The Norwegian Option (EEA) is a possible transitional halt, but no more. Speak to any Scandinavian Eurosceptic and they’ll tell you the EEA is better than EU membership, but being outside the EEA is better than in. Another danger with the EEA route is political entropy. Any future weak government could mimic the Oslo approach and make harmful and unpopular unilateral concessions, as Danegeld to weasel into the EU. The EEA might yet serve as a temporary transitional halt, if talks stall badly. But that eventuality is not guaranteed and the UK can do better than lingering at a motel. We should set a trend.
- The Budget remains a powerful card. The UK’s fortnightly contributions keep the EU in balance. Any unlikely and wild attempts by MEPs to slash UK net receipts could be deducted at gross source by the Treasury. Meanwhile, the UK has half of the pensions liabilities it should have due to its size, as it is underrepresented in Commission staffing. The UK’s share of unfunded liabilities payments committed within the long term budget, or ‘RAL’, also looks to be about twice its receipts. The UK is further liable to a fair share of the physical assets once it leaves. All these EU debts and black holes will be factors helping to deter counterparts acting in poor faith.
- Strategically factor in changes to UK human rights law. Ensure as we transition from the disastrous excesses of the Human Rights Act (HRA) that we are not opening up perceived ambiguities over existing or ‘grandfathered’ rights that also happen to be protected under human rights legislation. This is largely a clarity issue – underlining to other EU capitals that deporting a small sub-set of unwelcome criminals doesn’t mean the Home Office intends to also revoke existing residency rights for their nationals already legally resident.
- Learn from the negotiators’ mistakes. A European Parliament policy paper claimed that David Cameron’s initial negotiating position was to seek to “remain a ‘partial’ EU member, participating in the internal market, without being obliged to participate in other major EU policies (agriculture, fisheries, structural funds, social policy, justice and security, immigration, foreign policy, etc…).” Such a deal would have won him the referendum. But drafting anything along these lines now would be absurd.