The emperor’s new clothes – How can Brexit be negotiated without a plan?

Until a political decision has been made and voted on in Parliament about whether or not Britain is to remain in the EU single market and customs union, how can Britain and the EU negotiate a FTA, as there is no trade agreement model on the table to negotiate terms about.

Following the German Federal election the time that will remain to make a decision, propose a position, and agree terms, will be less than 10 months (taking into account Christmas, and the usual New Year, Easter, and Summer holiday periods in 2018). After March 2019 the EU’s priority will be to progress the negotiation of FTA’s with other countries, to which negotiations with Britain over Brexit are likely to be relegated when allocating technical negotiating resources. Britain’s negotiators should not waste a minute of the precious little time available which the EU have allocated to Brexit because this is not an elastic window, although it can be extended.

What is the government’s plan? – NB the Treasury reported that whereas £13 bn of contributions were paid to the EU in 2015, there would be a 9.5% cut in UK GDP which would trigger a £66 bn (per annum) loss of tax revenues under WTO rules if there is a hard Brexit, which = 85.7% differential net loss if Britain falls over the cliff edge. In other words trading with the EU under WTO rules will cost Britain (in lost revenue) 6.5 times more per annum than the cost of full membership did in 2015. That does not include the cost to each British business of the consequential administrative burden of additional bureacracy and tariff charges, and that is only half of the picture. As observed in the Brexit Roadmap on the Diplomatic Law Guide (www.diplomaticlawguide.com) underneath the heading ‘Regularising the UK’s WTO scheduled commitments’, ‘Britain is currently a member via the EU. Full members must deposit ‘schedules’ of tariffs, quotas, subsidies and other concessions on market access with the WTO. The UK will have to negotiate its own schedules, initially with the other 27. The tariff negotiation could be simple if the British followed what the EU currently does. But dividing up quotas, on say New Zealand lamb imports, would be more complicated. And then the new British schedules would need the approval of all 163 WTO members, since the organisation’s decisions require consensus. So if one member (for example, Argentina or Russia) wanted to create difficulties, it could block the British schedules. British officials hope that such difficulties do not arise, but reckon that it will be hard work to sort out WTO membership within the two years of the Article 50 negotiation.’

Where are Britain’s detailed position papers (for which we have had 12 months to prepare)?

If there is no strategic intelligence leading British negotiations with defined, practicable, and agreed (i.e. all singing off the same song sheet) objectives, then how can Theresa May’s government know where it is going and taking Britain?

How can it negotiate Brexit?

In “The Emperor’s New Clothes” (published 7 April 1837 in the final instalment of “Fairy Tales for Children”), Hans Christian Andersen told the tale of two weavers who promised an emperor a new suit of clothes which they said was invisible to those who were unfit for their positions, stupid, or incompetent. When the emperor paraded before his subjects in his new clothes, no one dared to say that they didn’t see any suit of clothes on him for fear that they would be seen as “unfit for their positions, stupid, or incompetent”. Finally, a child cried out, “But he isn’t wearing anything at all!”

Does this tale have any resonance for the trust politicians expect British voters to place in them to conclude terms of a comprehensive FTA with the EU before October 2018?

Do they see something that nobody else does?

If not, when the Article 50 clock stops ticking, unless an interim arrangement is actually in place (which has to be agreed), then what is the likelihood of Brexit negotiations resulting in a fairy tale ending?

In an article published in the Guardian (18 July) ‘How to beat the ticking Brexit clock: let British business leaders do the talking’, Miriam González Durántez concludes,

‘The best thing this government could do to appease the serious concerns of UK business leaders on Brexit is to rely on the business leaders themselves. This means no more toying with extravagant and ill-founded ideas. And it also means seeking an interim arrangement with the EU to continue benefiting from the single market and the customs union for as long as is needed until an alternative EU-UK deal is reached, as business leaders have proposed. This can be done by placing the UK into the European Economic Area on a temporary basis, and/or looking for an ad hoc arrangement extending the current status quo. Neither the extreme Brexiteers nor the extreme remainers like this option, but it is the only sensible thing to do right now. It allows the UK government to win time. And time is what the government needs – to get the skills it misses, to draft proposals it has not even started to draft yet and to negotiate with the serenity that the high economic interests at stake deserve. 

An interim deal is the only way to deal with the ticking clock Michael Barnier hears because, as any trade negotiator knows, there is nothing worse than negotiating against time. Except for negotiating against time in pursuit of delusional and unrealistic ambitions.’ 

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jul/18/brexit-british-business-leaders-legatum-eu

She also observes that at the meeting held at Chevening last week,

‘British business leaders were asked to share the table with the Legatum Institute, a think tank with unparalleled access to Davis and Theresa May and that seems to have been at the origin of some of the preposterous positions on Brexit taken by the government so far. Its inexplicable presence at that table was the clearest signal that the government has not changed its views on Brexit after the general election even one tiny little bit.’ [In which case, in spite of the Chancellor’s economic concerns, the Government remains unswerving it is determination to negotiate a hard Brexit].

‘Unlike think tanks like the Center for European Reform which knows more about the EU than the whole cabinet put together, the common characteristic of most of the Legatum trade commission seems to be not having worked at any time within the EU or even directly with it. I have negotiated myself for the EU on many occasions on trade, and I have seen how shocked negotiators from other countries become when they realise how difficult it is to negotiate with 27 countries – with their own institutions and legal system – at the same time. 

It is easy to see why this government would be mesmerised by Legatum. It is keen on unilaterally removing tariffs and quotas on agriculture products (farmers, take note) in exchange for services agreements all over the world. The effect of this on food security and food prices was highlighted this week in a report published by the University of Sussex. Equally importantly it doesn’t take much to realise that we are going to need an agriculture market at least 50 times the size of the UK’s to secure like-for-like access in foreign markets for our much larger services sector. A think-tank that can’t even work out the respective sizes of our farming and services sectors is in dire need of a lot more “thinking”. 

The institute also seems to be behind Davis’s recurrent claim that the UK will have “frictionless” access to the single market even if it is not part of it – an embarrassing comment that brings despair to Europeans, as the single market is a system of rules based on trust and a single legal order, and therefore accessible only to those who are part of it. When the EU negotiator Michel Barnier says that “some in Britain still do not understand”, he seems to be referring among others to how Davis still has not understood this. 

The main idea of the institute, though, seems to be the creation of a “prosperity zone” between the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Singapore, eventually extended to the US, Canada and Mexico, if the North Amercian Free Trade Agreement renegotiations succeed. This is actually an old idea, originally floated by Mitt Romney in 2008. It obviously did not work then, and it will not work now. One does not need to have a Nobel Prize in trade economics to realise that, even with the US and Canada included (which is very unlikely indeed) this can hardly compensate for all the trade that the UK will lose by stepping out of the EU.’ 

In an article in the Guardian (18 July) ‘In David Davis, Britain has a schoolboy in charge of the moon landings – Not all the early signs point to the Brexit secretary being a reckless bluffer who is wildly out of his depth. But most of them do’ (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jul/18/david-davis-brexit-secretary) the Guardian columnist Rafael Behr observes,

‘One definition of an ideologue is a person who responds to the collision of opinion with reality by insisting that reality must yield.

There are times when stubbornness is admirable, when formidable obstacles must be overcome by transcendent principle. Without that idea, Mahatma Gandhi would have bowed to British colonial rule. Rosa Parks would have surrendered her seat to a white passenger on an Alabama bus.

But in those cases, systemic prejudice ruled out negotiated compromise. Brexit is not such a case, and David Davis is no Rosa Parks. 

The Brexit secretary is certainly stubborn when it comes to belief in his own abilities. He is also on a collision course with a wall of reality in Brussels. It is a stark fact that Britain’s prosperity and security depend on his technique for navigating that obstacle. 

Early signs are not encouraging. It would be silly to extrapolate too much from the photograph, published on Tuesday, depicting Davis empty handed at a table opposite Michel Barnier, his European commission counterpart, who is holding a heap of notes. Officials say the snap was taken before UK team members had unpacked their own stack of documents. 

But, as is often the case with such episodes, the awkward optics reinforced a valid caricature: Davis as an amateur trying his (and his country’s) luck against professionals. It did not help that Davis was on his way back to Westminster within an hour of the picture being taken. The defence was that underlings remained and got down to business. 

But it is another stark fact of Brexit dynamics that Barnier’s staff are drilled in EU process and law. They are playing at home. Team Davis has hardly laced its boots. Whitehall is unable to plan for the government’s desired outcome because no one knows what it is. The UK is also unpractised in negotiating in Brussels as an external party because we have, until now, been an integral component of this thing called Europe. 

British “position papers” on technical aspects of the negotiation (how to trade in nuclear material when article 50 requires exit from Euratom, for example) make painful reading for anyone seeking reassurance that Davis’s department is match fit. They are vague summaries of problems without solutions, as if the authors are only now beginning to grasp the challenges, through the act of writing them down for the first time.

British officials could not build a workable Brexit model before article 50 was triggered because the prime minister would not divulge her preference. She then squandered weeks on an election campaign that turned ambiguity into paralysis. 

Anyone imagining that a strategic intelligence lurked behind the scenes should ponder Davis’s assertion last July that the UK could expect to conclude trade deals with the US, India, China and Japan among other countries, starting in September 2016. “Within two years, before the negotiation with the EU is likely to be complete … we can negotiate a free trade area massively larger than the EU,” he said. 

Where are those deals? As long as the UK is part of the single market and the customs union – which it will be until at least March 2019 – there can be no external trade pacts. Thereafter, an optimistic expectation for the duration for such complex talks is five years. Put politely, Davis was talking out of his article 50 ignorance. 

That might be cited as evidence to support the charge levelled this week by Dominic Cummings, former head of Vote Leave, that Davis is “thick as mince, lazy as a toad and vain as Narcissus”.. Yet the jibe, typically unkind, was also unfair on two points. Davis is neither stupid nor idle. Arrogance alone could not have raised him from a penurious childhood to the top of government. He is energetic and cunning. But his skills are suited to a peculiarly British mode of advancement: the celebration of swagger and bluff over due diligence. Davis has benefited from Westminster’s generosity to men who gamble and busk their way through scrapes born of their own ill preparation – overgrown schoolboys who shirk their homework, then talk their way out of detention.

It is a trait Davis shares with Boris Johnson, one of his rivals in a succession battle, should Theresa May be deposed. Both have a reputation in government for ignoring their briefing notes. 

Viewed from Brussels, where there is a higher premium on command of boring detail, it is depressing to see the question of Britain’s European future yet again subsumed into a parochial Tory pissing contest. It is irritating too to Brexit realists in the cabinet, one of whom has urged May to slap down the testosterone-fuelled “donkeys” in government. 

Davis’s allies say completion of Brexit is his only goal, after which he intends to retire. That denial does not rule out finishing the job from No 10, should a vacancy arise. Supporters also say Davis is also pragmatist – unlike the wilder ideologues, who prefer a frenzied bolt out of the EU exit to a staged departure. 

Davis has yielded to some realities. His early bravado has been tempered by recognition that aspects of the job “make the Nasa moonshot look simple”. He accepts the need for an “implementation phase” to Brexit. He knows that some payment will be made to settle the UK’s EU budget obligations. He has forged an alliance with Philip Hammond, the cabinet’s leading advocate of the view that drastic rupture from the single market would be ruinous. But awareness of potential calamity is not proof of a strategy to avoid it. Assurances of Davis’s sober intent cannot expunge his record of maverick gestures. 

The Apollo 11 mission is a better metaphor than the Brexit secretary realised. It took the best part of a decade to plan. It cost billions. It was delivered by forensic expertise, not cocksure improvisation. Besides, getting to the moon was only half of the job: Nasa would not have initiated the countdown without a plan to get everyone back to Earth unharmed. Yet Davis is at the controls, already firing us out of Europe’s orbit on an undefined trajectory, with a shaky grasp of the laws of political gravity.’

My guide ‘Brexit Roadmap’ is set out on the Brexit page of the Diplomatic Law Guide www.diplomaticlawguide.com