Dominic Raab is a member of the Exiting the European Union Select Committee, and is MP for Esher and Walton.
Between careless talk of war and the Brexit Committee’s gloomy critique of life outside the EU, whisper quietly, but the EU’s opening position is far better than expected.
There are 722 days left of Brexit negotiations. Every day, someone, somewhere, will find something to gasp about. The media will provide an echo chamber for the most theatrical histrionics. This week, reference in the EU’s negotiating guidelines to needing Spanish agreement on Gibraltar got opinion fired up. Yet the idea that Spain would hold a deal to ransom is implausible. The UK Government would never countenance some neo-imperial carve up of Gibraltar, and pressure from the rest of the EU on Spain not to scupper a deal would be enormous. If the EU wanted to give Britain good reason to leave with ‘no deal’, and clear domestic support at home, it would be by endorsing such ugly realpolitik. I suspect Spain insisted on the reference, having read the reasonable text on Northern Ireland’s border and the UK Sovereign Base Areas in Cyprus, nervous that they would come under domestic political attack unless Gibraltar got a mention, too.
Likewise, Parliament’s Brexit Committee – on which I sit – published a pessimistic report on the Government’s strategy. It took a magnifying glass to the risks, omitting proper assessment of the opportunities. That split the Committee, eroding its influence. But it’s a drizzle in a thimble. I am confident the committee, under the impressive chairmanship of Hilary Benn, can learn the lessons and return to a more collegiate approach.
Now, pause for breath. How many people have taken a cold flannel and the time to read the EU’s draft negotiation guidelines? Its nine pages are packed with positives.
First, the EU agrees to address the status of EU nationals and British ex-pats early in negotiations – vital to give them the reassurances they need.
Second, on the ‘exit deal’, the EU pledges to minimise uncertainty – and avoid a cliff-edge for either side. Yes, they expect financial liabilities to be settled. But there is no extortionate sum cited, and acceptance that the settlement be based on ‘legal and budgetary’ commitments – not paying some arbitrary political price.
Third, on trade and security, the EU explicitly ‘welcomes and shares’ the UK ambition to forge a ‘close partnership’. This can be teed up over the next two years, then concluded on departure.
Fourth, the EU insists the European Court of Justice adjudicate disputes until Britain leaves, but recognises we will need an independent dispute settlement process for our post-Brexit relationship.
And that’s their ‘draft’ opening position. Not quite as apocalyptic as some are making out, is it? In fact, it suggests broad agreement on 60-70 per cent of what we want in a deal. From the EU guidelines, three bones of contention stand out – none insurmountable – with two years to bridge the gaps.
First, the EU won’t start negotiations on the future relationship, until ‘sufficient progress has been made’ on the exit bill. Diplomats brief that this should be possible by the autumn. In case you needed a translation: with Euroscepticism rising at home, the German government can’t go into their September elections without showing some mettle on the post-Brexit costs that German taxpayers will have to pick up. Yes, creative thinking will be required, but dealing with the money will get a lot easier after the German elections.
Next, on trade, the guidelines spell out with surprising honesty what Brussels really fears. Paragraph 19 seeks ‘safeguards’ from post-Brexit Britain on competition, state aid and ‘fiscal, social and environmental dumping’. This is not about UK exports meeting EU regulatory standards – a given in any trading relationship. The EU knows that, free from Brussels’ straitjacket regulation and trading globally, Britain presents a massive competitive challenge to its rather languid economy. It’s correct. But we’ll need to find ways to assuage the EU’s worst fears, without diluting our commitment to taking back democratic control over our laws.
Finally, the EU reckons transitional arrangements may be needed to finalise the trade deal. If so, Brussels wants EU rules to apply. Even here, worst case scenario, might a transitional period be considered, with a one- to two-year ‘sunset’ clause to conclude talks with some finality? During any such period, if it’s really needed and a good deal is within our grasp, might EU rules and the UK financial commitment be phased out, while negotiators dot the i’s and cross the t’s on the detail of our future relationship? I don’t think it should be necessary, but I can’t say that scenario fills me with dread.
Amidst the media din and hysteria from Brexit’s more melodramatic opponents, Theresa May’s government is making confident strides towards a deal that would silence her critics.