Negotiations and trust

I am reading Hugo Young’s wonderful This Blessed Plot (is it really possible that it is out of print? How could that possibly be?). He agrees that de Gaulle behaved “monstrously” in vetoing the UK application to join the EEC in 1963, but also makes a good case that Macmillan deserves a share of the blame too. Macmillan’s approach to the negotiations was “conditional and tentative, creeping in a state of high suspicion towards this moment of historic destiny”; the UK made it clear that it wanted to “unpick” the Treaty of Rome in certain ways and wasn’t “necessarily willing to accept the acquis communautaire” — although it was offering nothing in compensation for this. Macmillan went out of his way to emphasize the fact that the Commonwealth and the UK’s relationship with the US were central concerns for him, strengthening de Gaulle’s view that the UK did not really belong in the EEC. Nor did the UK show any great enthusiasm for joining that organisation, in case this might weaken its bargaining hand. All of this merely served to strengthen European suspicions about the UK, and not only in France, and made it much easier for de Gaulle to eventually veto the UK application (just as UK diplomatic ineptness had made it easier for him to veto Plan G some years previously).

The story is not irrelevant today. Imagine that the UK had said, in June or July 2016, that given the closeness of the vote it would seek the closest possible relationship with the EU. Imagine that it had said that avoiding a hard border in Ireland was a major priority, but that it also wanted to avoid the emergence of trade barriers within the UK. Imagine that it had said that, therefore, it would be seeking to remain within a UK-EU customs union, and that it would unilaterally commit to remaining fully aligned with all EU regulations regarding goods. Imagine that it had said that, self-evidently, this would require it to abide by all relevant ECJ rulings, and that it would naturally be willing to make a contribution to the EU budget (but nowhere near as big a one as at present, of course). And imagine that it had said that it would also be willing to sign up to a broader set of guarantees ensuring that it would not try to steal a competitive march on the rest of Europe by undermining labour and regulatory standards more generally.

It might have been quite difficult for the EU to reject such an offer outright, and there might even have been reasons for it to welcome it. The EU could have made it clear that under these circumstances there would not be free access to the EU market for services, and that this might have very negative implications for various manufacturers based in the UK for whom the provision of services to their clients is an important part of their business. It could have added that these difficulties might be surmountable if the UK accepted all four freedoms of the Single Market and paid more into the EU budget. The UK might have objected to these objections. But at least there might have been a basis for negotiation.

It seems as though the UK government may finally be inching towards a situation in which it finds itself proposing something very like the hypothetical offer outlined above. There are still mad aspects to what is supposedly being suggested, notably the proposal that the UK collect customs duties on behalf of a customs union of which it is not a member, and that goods destined for the internal UK market should potentially be allowed to face an entirely different set of tariffs. And yet, the UK is apparently proposing to remain harmonized with EU regulations for goods. We are slowly getting there.

But only very slowly, and only in the face of enormous domestic political resistance. The UK did not proactively propose the solution suggested above – it is being dragged there, kicking and screaming, since it is finally coming to realize that there is no sensible alternative (other than accepting not only a customs union but all four Single Market freedoms, or not leaving the EU at all). Its government has worked, not to build up trust, but to destroy it. Its ministers have made no secret of their disdain for the EU. The UK government has made it clear that it really does want to do free trade deals around the world, and that it really does want the freedom to regulate – or deregulate – as it chooses. Even if Her Majesty’s Government is forced by circumstances to sign up to something that precludes this, we know that this would be only reluctantly: it is quite obvious that the UK does not want this solution. And we also know from experience that its government is capable of signing a document one day, and denying that it means what it says the next.

And what this means is that there is no trust on the other side of the table; nor should there be. And that implies that even if this British government eventually comes to accept that it needs to sign up to full customs union membership, as well as full compliance with EU regulations as regards goods, an offer along those lines may not be acceptable to the EU. Indeed, it seems almost certain that it will not be.

But it is still worth asking what would have happened if clear minds and strategic thinking had prevailed in London in June and July 2016, and such an offer had immediately been proposed without any strings being attached. There would still have been those who, like de Gaulle in 1963, would have wanted to reject it, and they might still have gotten their way. (They might even have been right: I am not implicitly comparing them to de Gaulle, who clearly behaved badly.) But I am willing to bet that it would have been more difficult for them.



9 replies on “Negotiations and trust”

This Blessed Plot is truly a wonderful book, and Hugo Young was a great loss to journalism and to British politics.

A wonderful book indeed and hard to believe it is out of print. I re-read it last year and it pre-figures so much about the current Brexit shambles, including the constitutional mess..

For six marks, who said this in the House of Commons during the debate on Britain’s first-ever national referendum in 1975?

‘It is quite possible to put a democratic case for having referendum provisions. If a referendum is put forward seriously as a constitutional instrument, we should need to consider the different kinds of referenda involved and what they implied for the present rules and conventions of our political order.

Assuming that we wanted the referendum provisions to apply only to constitutional questions, we should try to define what that means in a British context—an extraordinarily difficult exercise. If we wanted to avoid leaving the decision on whether to have a referendum to the whim of future Governments, we should have to think of some means of limiting its powers.

The White Paper does none of this. It is a practical expedient. It will have far-reaching consequences. The immediate point may be to register a popular view towards staying in the EEC. The longer-term result will be to create a new method of validating laws. What one Minister has used as a tactical advantage on one issue today, others will use for different issues tomorrow. This will lead to a major constitutional change, a change which should only be made if, after full deliberation, it was seriously thought to be a lasting improvement on present practice.

This White Paper has come about because of the Government’s concern for internal party interests. It is a licence for Ministers to disagree on central issues but still stay in power. I believe that the right course would be to reject it and to consider the wider constitutional issues properly and at length.’

Extremely apt, Colm. But the then leader of the opposition had a firm grasp of the essential features of the UK’s constitutional order and was prepared to pool some of the UK parliament’s sacred sovereignty via treaty with the Community’s other member-states to foster trade and commerce – as she signally did in driving the Single European Act forward. However, she also had a clear understanding of the extent to which this sovereignty could or should be pooled.

I have long suspected that her current successor as PM, though perhaps not as forceful as a politicial personality, has a similar grasp of the issues. We shall have to wait and see if the sensible outcome of the pantomime at Chequers on Friday will be sustained.

I haven’t read The Blessed Plot …. but a brief and informative update from Brexit Chequers this evening:

“… the deal was discussed over a buffet lunch of BBQ chicken thighs, a “wheat-beets-squash” salad and feta, a Chequers estate new potato salad, estate-grown mixed leaves with summer tomato salad and pomegranate dressings.

For desert it was Chequers scones with clotted cream and estate strawberry jam, Graham’s sticky tea loaf and a fruit platter. [,,,]

[Davis’] opposition, and that of other Brexiteers, appears to have withered over a formal three-course dinner starting with whisky and treacle-cured Scottish salmon.

The main course was Oxfordshire beef fillet with crispy shin and baby leeks, followed by marmalade bread and butter pudding.”

Book is available (paper or hardback) from Amazon.

The UK is an island with a long history of an ambivalent political relationship with continental europe – before 1918. Then lots of things got moved around and maybe the British became even more jaundiced about the political situations on the continent.

The emergence of the EEC, then the EU was the logical process to create a ‘super state’ which by the application of treaty law would be able to superimpose economic policy in each member state. I believe the British have finally bridled at their serious loss of national sovereignty and have, quite correctly, decided that being a non-member is the way to go.

No sovereign will long survive as such if it alienates its ability to control the flows of goods, services, capital and most especially the flows of specific cohorts of economic migrants across its frontiers. It seems that this message is becoming understood in central europe and the various sovereigns there will do whatever it takes to put in place those controls that suit. Will not be easy with land-based frontiers. But it was done before.

Did I mention that Britain (and ourselves) are islands? We have a very long shared history and great deal more in common with each other than either of us have with continental europe. If it eventuates that the EU negotiators deem a physical border is required along the land frontier between the UK and ourselves – then that is what will happen. And we will simply have to suck it up, or follow the UK out of the EU (and presumably the EZ as well).

Its going to be a giddy ride down to March ’19.

“Imagine that the UK had said, in June or July 2016, that given the closeness of the vote it would seek the closest possible relationship with the EU. Imagine that it had said that avoiding a hard border in Ireland was a major priority, but that it also wanted to avoid the emergence of trade barriers within the UK. Imagine that it had said that, therefore, it would be seeking to remain within a UK-EU customs union…”

The Leave side was only really able to win because the vagueness of destination Brexit allowed a smorgasbord of possibilities – one to suit the imagination everyone a trifle hacked off with something in some way associated with Europe. Any one destination for Brexit is in reality a minority position in the country in comparison to simply remaining in the EU.

Perhaps it would have been possible for a shocked-to-have-won Brexiteer leader of the Conservative party to lead the country in a more moderate and pragmatic way, but Teresa May ended up in charge and that caused two problems. First, she was a Remainer whose slight campaigning was more to do with triangulating her leadership ambitions and retaliating against Cameron and Osborne rather than because she was a secret Brexiteer – and that led to her overcompensating, appearing more hard line than the likes of John Redwood early on. Second, she is only really politically comfortable as a determined ‘implementer’ and has always had a problem being expedient and flexible. As the referendum result was seized upon by the Brexit Ultras as being a clear sign of a new direction the people had chosen, May had the opportunity to be implementer, leader and follower all at once.

As a Remainer, she had no choice but to (i) fill key posts with Brexiteers and (ii) initially start off on a path of apparent hard-line Brexit. But a better politician would have remained sufficiently aloof so as to more easily ditch the hard-liners once they had started to hang themselves with the rope she had given them – preferably before Article 50 was triggered. Her rigidity and schtick of being the politician who means what she says, unlike all the others, served her and the country poorly. Perhaps she has finally got round to facing them down.

In the Westminster bubble there is a sense that that bubble is a form of reality that matters more than the real reality out there in the real world. That is why the left-right Europhile-Eurosceptic battle for the future of the Conservative party, the vacuous positioning of Corbyn’s Labour party, and the attendant chattering of the British political media have gone on for so long seemingly oblivious to the bubble’s location in the front carriage of a self-imposed slow-motion train wreck.

Perhaps they have now got to the point where the wheels have come off the various fantastical Brexit-means-whatever-you-want-it-to bandwagons and a more sober debate about what Brexit should be – and indeed whether it should be – might belatedly get under way.

Your speaker would have made mincemeat of the current cabinet.

In addition to messing up the UK’s economic and political relations with its neighbours the Eurosceptics have messed up the British constitutional order. Nobody knows (I) when are referendums required or (ii) what is the status of a referendum outcome?

Contrast the triggering of referendums in Ireland (by parliament for the sole purpose of constitutional amendment) and the status of the outcome (constitution amended, if carried, the night of the vote). Hence no ‘consultative’ referendums, and no arguments or court actions about the interpretation of the result, aka Will O’ the People.

Or Germany – no referendums at all.

Thatcher in 1975 was bitterly opposed to the bonzer wheeze of introducing the referendum cuckoo into the nest of parliamentary sovereignty in the absence of a codified constitution, although she did not call for one AFAIK.

There will be calls for a codified constitution when the dust settles.

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