Ashley Fox is an MEP for South West England, and is the leader of Britain’s Conservative MEPs.
In the official photograph of David Davis and Michel Barnier taken prior to the second round of Brexit talks, a pile of documents sits in front of the EU negotiating team, while the British side of the table is empty.
For those determined to undermine the Government, it symbolised our apparent lack of preparation for what lay ahead. A narrative was created which subsequent explanations that the British had yet to open their briefcases were unable to change.
However, two months on, that same picture can be read entirely differently.
Since then, the Government has published a series of position papers on issues including our future customs relationship with Europe, potential new arrangements to avoid a hard border in Ireland and alternatives to the European Court of Justice.
In each case, novel solutions have been suggested to the unique issues thrown up by our withdrawal from the EU.
On customs, for example, alongside an expansion of the existing use of technology and trusted trader schemes to keep border checks to an absolute minimum, the Government is proposing the creation of an entirely new customs partnership with the EU. It is untested and raises many questions but, if implemented, such an arrangement would allow trade to flow in both directions in much the same way it does now.
On Ireland, too, ministers have looked for creative answers to the problem of managing the UK’s only land border with the EU. A continuation of the long standing Common Travel Area would remove the need for passports to be shown by the 30,000 people who cross the border each day, while an exemption for small and medium sized businesses from any kind of customs controls would cover 80 per cent of cross border trade. Once again, there are problems to overcome but none of them are unsolvable if both sides approach the negotiations positively.
Brussels’ reaction to the position papers has been predictable but nevertheless disappointing. European Parliament Brexit co-ordinator Guy Verhofstadt proved once again what a pervasive influence he is on the whole process by immediately taking to Twitter to describe the customs ideas as “a fantasy”.
He secured the headlines he craves but offered no constructive ideas of his own to protect the thousands businesses and millions of workers in the EU27 who rely on continued trade with Britain and who he is supposed to represent.
Verhofstadt is fond of overstating his role in the Brexit process, often aided and abetted by the British media which insists on wrongly referring to him as the European Parliament’s Brexit negotiator. But no-one with real influence would conduct talks via social media in such inflammatory terms.
The European Commission was equally negative, if more measured, tweeting simply: “Frictionless trade not possible outside Single Market & Customs Union”.
Which brings me back to that photograph.
Those documents in front of EU Chief Negotiator Barnier and his team spelled out the narrow mandate they have been handed by the European Council and from which they cannot depart. It is the negotiating equivalent of painting by numbers, in which Barnier is simply instructed to fill in the gaps. Even the colours he must use are specified in advance.
This approach might work if the subject matter was familiar and there were previous paintings to copy. But even Barnier admits that the Irish border solution cannot be based on precedent.
In contrast, the only constraint on the UK team is the size of the canvas on which they have to work. We are leaving the Single Market and the Customs Union but beyond that our negotiators can innovate and compromise. It is the final picture that matters, not the colours, materials or techniques used to create it.
Without similar free-thinking and flexibility from the EU, I worry that we may not secure a deal that best serves both sides. Michel Barnier is an able negotiator, but he urgently needs a larger paint box.