What is the purpose of negotiations? The aim is, or should be to reach a settlement that satisfies both sides. This is what most adults understand by ‘fairness’. And negotiations require hard work.
A bit of background: The Withdrawal Agreement establishes the terms of the UK’s orderly withdrawal from the EU, in accordance with Article 50 of the Treaty of the European Union. It entered into force on 1 February 2020 together with the Political Declaration setting the framework of the future EU-UK partnership. Point 77 of the Declaration underlines the need for the future relationship to ‘ensure open and fair competition, encompassing robust commitments to ensure a level playing field’.
While the Johnson regime wallows in its world-beating incompetence, the EU has been working on its plans for the future, post-Brexit relationship with the UK.
It started with the Commission’s Taskforce for the Future Relationship. External stakeholders such as industry groups, NGOs, trade bodies and trade unions were invited to provide input. Following initial discussions within the taskforce, a draft negotiating mandate was drawn up then sent to the Member States in the Council of the EU. Once the draft was finalised, it was sent to the rotating presidency of the Council (in the first half of this year Croatia; currently Germany) and then circulated to all Member States to secure their agreement.
Once agreement was reached it was sent to the next available meeting of the General Affairs Council of the EU when it was adopted as the official mandate on which the Commission negotiates on behalf of the EU as a whole. The mandate can only be changed if the Council of the EU agrees on this. If this sounds rather time-consuming, that is because it is – but it ensures that the EU Member States act as one and that all their wishes are respected. The Commission entered negotiations with the UK on the basis of this mandate, having chosen as chief negotiator Michel Barnier, who is widely respected on all sides.
The Commission regularly gives updates on the negotiations (either through spokespeople at the daily mid-day press briefings, or through Barnier at the end of each round of negotiations). This is exemplary transparency.
The European Parliament has to ratify the final agreement.
Pride and prejudice
As Jane Austen might have said if she had been born 200 years later: ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a self-isolating country with zero prospects must be in want of a trading partner’. But…
In the UK, the Government having signed the Withdrawal Agreement and the Political Declaration (both of which it will coolly ignore), scribbles something on the back of an envelope which appears under AOB at a Cabinet meeting, and is adopted without discussion (or much interest). No stakeholders – certainly not the obvious ones like the CBI and TUC – are asked to contribute to the UK’s negotiating position.
The Government appoints someone with no discernible qualifications to engage with the EU. Remember such stellar talents as David Davies (‘the risks of a no-deal Brexit are smaller than the potential gains’)? Or Liz Truss – ‘the People’s Idiot’ – describing cheese imports as ‘a disgrace’? Or Liam Fox, who managed to cobble together an international trade agreement with… the Faroe Islands? And now Raab – the man whose knowledge of the UK’s geography is rather shaky (he seemed unaware of the Channel), who confused the Irish Sea with the Red Sea, and who boasts of never having read the Northern Ireland Good Friday agreement.
Our gallant lads – as opposed to wily ‘Johnny Foreigner’ – enter negotiations with no clue as to what is going on or why.
Meanwhile, the House of Commons appears to have no meaningful role to play whatsoever. And in the UK the public are only dimly aware of what’s going on thanks to the Government’s policy of treating them like mushrooms (kept in the dark with shit shovelled onto them at regular intervals).
The big question is whether the two sides will agree on anything except to disagree. The UK is unwilling to recognise the crucial importance of a level playing field (spelled out in point 77 of the Political Declaration which, you will remember, the UK has solemnly signed.). Michel Barnier must be sick to death of repeatedly meeting up with his intellectual inferiors and British civil servants (or ‘unelected bureaucrats’) who are only obeying orders. It is their ministerial masters who must take the blame for the inevitable failure of negotiations.
Sense and senselessness
The devious Brits will try to pick off the EU Member States one by one, but it won’t work: the days when a talent-free chinless wonder could order ‘Frogs’ and ‘Krauts’ about, have long-gone. The EU Member States know what is at stake: the future stability of Europe. Johnson and his gang can indulge their public school fantasies, but a schoolboy dream will not get you very far in real life.
And why should the other EU Member States believe any nonsense from the Brits if it is not enshrined in enforceable international law? The Turks have a saying: ‘To lie like an Englishman’ – no doubt our Prime Minister is familiar with this as he is of Turkish descent (which might account for his bizarre use of English); the saying refers to the apparent inability or unwillingness of the Brits to approach international negotiations in a spirit of openness and honesty.
A few years ago I visited the beautiful château of Kynžvart (née Königswart) in Western Bohemia, which until 1945 belonged to the Metternich family. The best-known member of this family was Klemens, Austria’s Foreign Minister from 1809 to 1848. His study contains the desk he used at the Congress of Vienna, which he masterminded and which was responsible for the century-long post-Napoleonic settlement of Europe. The desk was a gift from the grateful organising committee.
Will the UK’s chief negotiator, David Frost, receive a similar gift – or will he be lucky to walk away from the negotiations with a pencil sharpener?
Philip Cole is the former head of English translation at the European Parliament. He now lives in Cheltenham