Richard Graham is MP for Gloucester.
The quality of much of the media coverage of our negotiations with the EU Commission over how we leave the EU has been poor. Here are four ways in which some media outlets have distorted what’s happening:
Inflating unhelpful European comments (and commentators): ignoring helpful ones
When the UK put forward a position paper on trade and customs alternatives during a transition phase, the European Parliament’s Co-Ordinator (‘Rapporteur’), Guy Verhofstadt, described this as ‘fantasy’.
Now the European Parliament has a role in approving the final deal between the EU and the UK, just as our own Parliament does. But it is not a negotiating partner, and does not represent any of the 27 governments who task the EU Commission and approve their negotiating positions. Verhofstadt is simply an informed commentator.
But you would not have known this from some media reactions. The Guardian described him (without naming him or giving his position) as a ‘European leader’. One BBC article described him as the “European Parliament’s negotiator”. The Daily Express refers to him as ‘Brexit negotiator’. The Sun calls him “the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator”.
And of course the impact of this reporting was to cast doubt on the value of our proposals – as if they had been immediately and unanimously rubbished.
Which of course they had not. The reaction that mattered was from Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, who said that he welcomed the proposals, while a European Commission spokesman said: “We see the UK’s publication of a series of position papers as a positive step towards now really starting phase one of the negotiations. The clock is ticking and this will allow us to make progress,” he said.
The truth behind this is that the ex-Remain media camp overplays unhelpful reactions from Europe, inflating the importance of Verhofstadt and others with anti-UK quotes without context or analysis.
The worst suspect is the Evening Standard, where George Osborne (whose scaremongering about what would happen if we voted to leave the EU helped to bring about precisely that result), is simultaneously still fighting the referendum and waging revenge for his dismissal by Theresa May. This is bad for both his reputation and the paper’s credibility. And it all does no favours for readers trying to understand what is really going on.
The objective test is: who is reporting equally different noises from the EU?
Recent comments from Karl Haeusgen, Vice President of the German Mechanical Engineering Industry Association (VDMA), which are a good case in point. Haeusgen highlighted that the UK was the EU’s fourth largest market, warned the economic price of failing to strike a trade deal with the UK “will be bad for all of us” and said German manufacturers were concerned for the future of their businesses.
Those comments are the mirror of concerns from businesses in the UK about the so-called “cliff-edge”, and illustrate precisely why the transition period is so important to business confidence (and investment and jobs). But do European concerns get space in the Standard, the Guardian, the Independent or the Financial Times? Rarely.
Criticising Transition relationships with the EU helpful to trade
If the first issue above is about media and journalists whose starting-point is that leaving the EU is either a disaster or an absolute disaster, then the second one is about the reverse: those for whom any deal with the EU is suspicious: the best solution is a unilateral exit from all European institutions, whether EU or not, and deviations from that probably mean a “sellout”.
This is, broadly, the view from Nigel Farage and the Daily Express, with the Sun and the Daily Telegraph allowing a little water in the same whisky.
The reporting that followed Philip Hammond’s first comments about the need for a transition period were a good example. There have been discussions for months about the need to give business a minimum of two years notice of changes to processes – rather than just arriving at March 2019 without knowing in advance what would happen.
But some managed to pretend this was news: such as the Mail Online, which stated” “Britain is hoping to kick off talks on a Brexit transitional deal with the EU by this autumn, Philip Hammond revealed.” Or ITV, which said” “Philip Hammond ‘wants UK to keep full single market access in transitional Brexit deal’
What should have been (and be) good news as a practical and sensible approach to leaving the EU became what the Daily Express described as a ‘Brexit stitch-up!’
And just as EU -oving media ignore European business concerns about the EU negotiating stance, the John Bull side of the boxing ring has struggled to identify a British business with any concerns about what happens to their trade after March 2019.
The objective test is to look for comments from businesses which never had a public Remain or Leave political stance, and have strong exports to the EU.
Not identifying obvious negotiating tactics
If you live outside your own country, the law of that land becomes the law you have to live and work within. It’s a very simple and universal concept. In the case of the EU there is a pooled arrangement, so that ultimately all EU judgements go through a single Court of Justice (ECJ).
But that will clearly cease to be valid for EU nationals living here once we’ve left the EU. Everyone knows that. There is no precedent, anywhere, for anything else.
A former aide to Angela Merkel told me that the EU position on this was the most obvious happy-to-be sacrificed negotiating point, in exchange for something useful, of all. He just couldn’t understand why the UK media hadn’t realised this, and continued to treat ECJ jurisdiction in the UK for EU nationals as some great point of principle to be overcome.
Of course you could take the view that it suits the UK as well to play the ECJ role up – in order, when it is conceded, to represent some great future triumph for our negotiators.
But it is very odd that some of the media cannot, or is reluctant to, identify even the most obvious negotiating tactics.
Analysing the heart of the deal
The media, in general, is focused on the EU insistence of an ‘exit bill’, without much questioning either the legal basis or method of calculation for this. It also reports our pursuit of free trade and easy customs arrangements, and knows this is of interest to business and other organisations in the EU as well. What it hasn’t done is to explore the link – what effectively “the nation of shopkeepers” might be willing to pay for such continuity.
There is an obvious opportunity here. The EU has a budget gap to fill, and we both have future trade to protect. Something that fulfils their ‘exit bill’ (that puts off others from wanting to follow suit) while giving us and the EU certainty of future trade is a doable deal. It just needs both sides to find a way to satisfy negotiating pride.
But you wouldn’t know this from a large number of media reports, which present the EU agenda (exit bill and Ireland first, trade later) as completely rigid. Ireland is incredibly important, but it is fundamentally something for us, including Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to resolve, and the EU to approve.
The real negotiation is about the business of business, practical arrangements to resolve issues temporarily and longer term – and at what cost. That is what the media could usefully focus on, and constituents need to know.
But that would be dull fare for the next 18 months. So instead we’ll get lots more stories about photographs of the UK negotiating team without their briefcases, whether this means they haven’t got any papers..and who in the Cabinet might not agree with who on what detail.
Meanwhile, since I anticipate both a continued steady stream of unhelpful quotes from Verhofstadt, in the Remain media, and the continued building of a ‘betrayal’ narrative by Farrage and his outlets, I hope this acts as a calming guide to what matters most.