Edward Bickham is Vice Chairman of the Conservative Group for Europe and was Special Adviser to Douglas Hurd during the negotiation of the Maastricht Treaty.
As we move towards the departure gate from the European Union, there is a distinct danger that the Government’s negotiating strategy will go horribly wrong, inflicting damage on both Britain and the rest of the EU. I was a Remain voter, but respect the outcome of the referendum. Our relationship with the European Union must fundamentally change, but to observe that the 48 per cent have as much right to shape the future as Leave voters is not to defy ‘the will of the people’.
The Government’s negotiating stance seems designed to please Brexit zealots rather than to build a new consensus. It risks creating continuing divisions within the country and between the Conservative Party and business. Moreover, the hard-line version that the Government is pursuing has, predictably, been seized on as a source of grievance by Nicola Sturgeon and, if the recent Stormont elections are a guide, seems set to become a source of instability in Northern Ireland. It doesn’t have to be this way. We need to relearn the art of meeting each other halfway rather than aiming for ‘winner takes all’.
The Prime Minister has spoken of her desire to create a “new strategic partnership between Britain and the EU”. This is welcome, but she has provided little sense of how this should work. She has ruled out “holding on to aspects of membership as we leave” and instead seems to envisage a range of ad hoc arrangements for continued co-operation in areas like foreign policy security, crime, science, aviation, and higher education alongside the proposed free trade agreement. This opt-out-and-opt-back-in approach seems to be the preferred model since it mirrors the approach which she pursued as Home Secretary.
In all the debate about divorce costs and trade negotiations we are tending to lose sight of the many areas where we should be seeking to maintain the closest possible continued co-operation with our neighbours. These are too important to be left to chance. When we leave the EU we will need a new institutional relationship to co-ordinate how we work together. In a new Policy Options Paper from the Conservative Group for Europe, I suggest three possible models – Associate Membership; a Britain-EU Partnership Council or (least appealing) the adoption of a model based on the Bruegel think tank’s Continental Partnership Framework that might also accommodate other geographically peripheral countries.
As we trigger Article 50, I fear we are in danger of asking for the wrong things, in the wrong way and on the wrong timescale.
The ‘wrong things’ arise from the commitment made at the Conservative Party Conference to exclude ourselves from the European Court of Justice. This is unnecessarily rigid, and is the ultimate reason for excluding ourselves from the Single Market and Euratom. The ECJ does not deserve to be demonised. Its role has been essential in policing the common corpus of Single Market legislation. If we were to sacrifice much of our trade, especially in services, by moving to a free trade agreement we would still need to accept the rules of a supranational arbitrating body. The role of the ECJ has been much less controversial than that of the European Court of Human Rights.
The theology behind the ban on the ECJ having jurisdiction seems to flow from a model of sovereignty that asserts ‘no one should be allowed to tell us what to do’, and finds its ultimate expression in the fact that the Trump administration is now contemplating its willingness to accept adverse WTO rulings. An unwillingness to share sovereignty risks unravelling a lot of the international architecture built by the post-war generation. We are in danger of forgetting the lessons of history. If we were not painted in to a corner on the ECJ, I suspect that a grand bargain could yet be made between budget contributions, curbs on freedom of movement and Single Market membership.
In relation to ‘the wrong way’, although the Prime Minister has largely been immaculate in her style, there are too many loose-lipped members of the Government who seem to delight in causing offence to countries whose goodwill is essential to a good outcome to the negotiations. We seem to display no empathy. The Prime Minister and Chancellor have both stressed that we see a strong EU as important for European prosperity and stability and, therefore, as being in Britain’s interests. But much of the rhetoric seems nationalistic and transactional. If the EU27 believe that Brexit is an existential threat then they will respond accordingly and seek to ‘punish’ our temerity. But it doesn’t have to be like that. If we can convince them that we are not prickly and sovereignty-obsessed, and whilst we may have chafed as full members we can be better first cousins, and want to devise a positive new basis for our relationship to mutual advantage, then we are much more likely to emerge with a benign outcome. If we fail in that objective then relations may be soured for a generation and we will both end up poorer, less influential and less safe.
Article 50 sets a daunting two-year window for negotiation. In reality, with the potential need for ratification and the improbability of substantive progress until after the German elections in the autumn, the window is little more than a year. That is not long enough to complete a highly complex negotiation. Whilst Brexit is a high political priority it is noteworthy that negotiation of the Canadian-EU FTA took seven years. Thus we should be seeking to agree the framework for a new relationship along with the divorce settlement within the two-year window but then allow a further time for transition and completion of the detailed negotiations. It would be wise for Britain to aim to maintain our membership of the European Economic Area until such time as better terms can be negotiated.
I am suspicious of those who trumpet that we have no reason to fear ‘no deal’ and that we can happily move from having the most advantageous access to the world’s largest single market to the worst available terms overnight. They seem to regard it as a matter of sublime indifference how many bridges we smash down or how many jobs we lose in the process.
In summary, two years from now we will still be Europeans, our geography will not change, our economic, political and security interests will still be broadly the same. Brexit will be painful but let’s try for a model that preserves as much goodwill, mutual respect and co-operation as possible between us. That is in our interests abroad and at home where we need a model for Brexit that doesn’t alienate half the population and risks a breaking apart of the Union.