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The Brexit Negotiations - A Matter Of Timing

31/03/2017 11:42

Okay then, what happens next? The press is full of guidance as to the steps which follow the giving of notice under Article 50. First there will be a White Paper. Then Mr Tusk will send out guidelines regarding the structure of negotiations. The rest of April will be spent by the EU producing a mandate, completed at a summit on 29 April. From then on there will be negotiations, summits, walkouts and all the rest of it with a view to having an agreement ready for ratification in the autumn of 2018.

That all seems simple enough, but it doesn't deal with the difficult bit: how the two sides will handle the negotiation from a political point of view. As always the trick is to look at the domestic politics, in the UK the interaction between Mrs May and her Parliamentary colleagues, in the EU the relationship between the Commission and the various states.

Tennyson's famous poem about the Charge of the Light Brigade describes how:

"Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley'd & thunder'd."

It cannot have been very pleasant if you were charging, but at least all the cannons were being fired by the same enemy. Mrs May is in a slightly different position. For her, if the guns ahead are those of the EU, those firing in from the sides are from the home team, a combination of extreme Brexiteers and Remainers who will not be happy unless any deal fits in with their specific requirements. Although their starting points may be different they have in common a rigid opposition to compromise and an insistence that they will only support a deal that gives much the same benefits as the UK currently enjoys, the Remainers being prepared to give up immigration controls for this, the hard Brexiteers being happy to walk away without a deal.

Like any good general, Mrs May has to decide in which order she is going to deal with her problems and, no doubt conscious that she only has a small majority, she must deal with the domestic ones first or risk her negotiations being derailed when they come to be voted on. So which should it be, Brexiteers or Remainers?

Her tactical decision to neutralise the Brexiteers first was evident from the shape of her negotiating team, which includes the Brexit campaigners David Davis, Boris Johnson and Liam Fox. Let them be the ones who explore the hardline, no concessions, approach. Give them the job of selling to the public a 'no deal' solution. Either they will come across to a more practical way of approaching matters, and it seems that David Davis may already have done this, or they are gradually going to be exposed as "nutters". Either way they will have lost their force as blockers of a sensible compromise.

The cannons on the other side are manipulated by those who not only voted against leaving the EU in the referendum, after all many of us did that, but now insist that a deal will only be acceptable if it provides all the benefits of membership. That means that as the government takes the tough stance which is essential in this sort of negotiation, they will undermine it from the wings. "We cannot accept any limitation to our access to the market", "it would start things off well if we guaranteed the position of EU nationals working here without reciprocal rights for our people", blah, blah, blah. At the moment they are making a lot of noiose, laying down terms to which they say the government must adhere, without any real thought as to whether they are achievable or not. I expect it is fun making lists of conditions in a Westminster bar but it is a pointless exercise unless those conditions have a prospect of being accepted by the EU at a price which the electorate would be prepared to pay.

Probably the government needs to do little about this particular cohort as their position will look increasingly unrealistic as the EU presents its position. Nonetheless it is going to be tedious if every time a hard negotiating position is taken, there is a group of politicians saying that in that case they will vote down the ultimate deal.

Mrs May only has a small majority and for that reason is vulnerable in Parliament to either of the groups who threaten to undermine her. Still, her popularity with voters is high and even those who would not normally warm to her brand of conservatism see that she has a hard job and wish her well with it. If she is to keep her domestic opponents in line she may need to call on that support, not just from her own party but from members of other parties too. It is not suggested that she should communicate with the voters by twitter feed or indeed change her rather tight-lipped style. Until now her public speeches have been forthright and comprehensible. Provided they continue to be so, the public will cut her plenty of slack and she will be able to appeal to them direct and not rely on normal political networks. There are times when the new populism has its uses.

Move to the other side of the fence and one sees something similar. The EU negotiators will have on their flanks those who believe in some sort of a "punishment" agenda and those, perhaps in Eastern Europe, who are concerned that the UK should continue to make a contribution to their security at any cost. Again, the groups will need to be picked off, and if the negotiators are keen to put through a sensible deal, they should probably let the punishment tide run first. It is only when the EU has considered whether it wants an enemy on its western flank or not that those who believe in compromise will get their heads.

So what are the stages likely to be? First, the two sides will set out their position and they will do it with particular audiences in mind. The UK will be anxious to take a very hard position to kill off internal criticism from the Brexiteers. The EU will let the punishment men call the shots. After six months or so it will look pretty grim and any overt attempt towards compromise will only emerge in late 2018/early 2019 when the more extreme elements on both sides have been discredited. Two possible conclusions are worth bearing in mind. Do not get too distressed at the state of negotiations when the nutters are still being flushed out. They have to be fed with rope so there is bound to be a horrible tangle while they tie themselves in knots. Second, if you are going on holiday to somewhere which does not use the Euro or sterling in the next year or so, it might make sense to buy your currency before the fun starts.

First published in the Shaw Sheet

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