Brexit extension shows the UK continues to struggle with the basics of international negotiations
By: David Henig
Subjects: European Union UK Project
Yet again Brexit has been delayed. The EU has reluctantly granted another extension, this time of three months. It remains uncertain as to what might happen during this time, there may be an election in the UK, the deal may be passed by Parliament, or we may be discussing yet another extension in January 2020. When considering how this situation came to pass it is worth recalling a story about Winston Churchill.
When talking to a newly elected Conservative MP in the chamber of the House of Commons Churchill is reputed to have said that the opposition is in front of you, the enemy behind, in others words on your own side. For politics we could also read trade negotiations, and the importance of keeping your own side on board.
Now like many of the best quotes attributed to Churchill he may not have in fact said the words, but at the very least there is a lesson here that his modern-day successors have been struggling with. For the UK has now managed to agree two slightly different deals with the EU, but has yet to agree either with their own parliament. Despite this there is little suggestion in the UK of significant changes to how things will be done in the future, to the surprise of future negotiating partners and many in the UK business community.
Under UK law the government can strike international treaties with parliament having only very limited powers to refuse to ratify. In the case of the EU Withdrawal Agreement, the nature of the legal change meant that the government was forced by a court case to provide parliament with a meaningful vote, which was enough in the case of PM May to see her deal rejected three times. PM Johnson has taken a different tack, and has received in principle agreement from parliament to bring forward a law enshrining the amended Withdrawal Agreement, but it is still in the balance as to whether his deal would finally pass, after they turned down his initial suggestion that three days was sufficient scrutiny. It seems he would prefer an election to what would probably be a difficult ratification, not least with many questions outstanding about the renegotiated Ireland protocol.
At the root of this problem is the assumption that under the UK political system a government will have a majority which will allow them to pass any legislation or treaties, without any particular consultation. In fact in recent years the UK government has not had a comfortable majority, but more importantly this assumption has not held in the past for major international policy decisions like joining the EU originally (where both main parties were split to a degree), and does not hold now. There are Conservative MPs who wish to see a continuing strong relationship with the EU even after Brexit, and others who would much prefer no-deal. This is also the case for the Labour Party.
Successive UK governments have therefore negotiated treaties without the knowledge of whether parliament would support them, and then run into trouble. During negotiations little opportunity was given for MPs to have much of a say. Of course Brexit has been highly political and there is a significant opposition to leaving the EU at all, but the failure ever to be able to understand what would command a majority in Parliament has started to become ever more apparent.
Not however so apparent that any serious changes are envisaged in the next stage of negotiations, for future Free Trade Agreements with the EU or anyone else. It is envisaged for a future FTA with the EU that parliament would vote on a probably outline statement of negotiating objectives, and then vote on the final agreement. Given the likely detail to be included, this is clearly wholly inadequate in terms of either scrutiny or making sure that parliament would in fact support whatever negotiators concluded.
It is likely that there would be less scrutiny of other future FTAs, something that has been registered by negotiators of other countries and many UK government stakeholders. Negotiators have frequently expressed surprise at the UK government’s confidence of being able to easily complete agreements on the basis of what seems to them flimsy negotiating positions that don’t seem to reflect what they hear from other UK stakeholders. Business has also been asking for far greater scrutiny and transparency of UK trade policy for the last two years, without any joy, and are also concerned by whether they will have a chance for detailed engagement during future negotiations.
In the case of FTAs it has seemed that the government sees these as primarily economic, and therefore just a good thing, rather than also intensely political, and therefore potentially controversial. For the moment some of the usual difficult domestic trade policy stakeholders such as farmers and anti-trade campaigners have not been able to influence widely, as a result of Brexit dominance, but we can expect this to change not least if negotiations start with the US. Those in Brussels who recall TTIP negotiations are expecting a similar campaign against a UK-US trade deal, and indeed some of the same opposition groups are already mobilising.
There is clearly considerable naivety in the way the UK is approaching negotiations, but it isn’t particularly clear how much this is politicians requiring the Brexit project to be a sunny optimistic one, or whether too many of the UK’s senior officials, few with any directly applicable experience, are unaware of the pitfalls. For example the Department for International Trade appears to have been blindsided by the Canadians ending negotiations on a CETA rollover after realising there was little benefit once the UK’s proposed on-deal tariffs were published. It still isn’t clear if the government thinks there can be a US trade deal without significant movement from the UK on agriculture, and in general there has been no conversation on what sacrifices the UK is prepared to make in FTAs.
We could also consider the role in this of Brexit courtiers, many of whom have been telling Ministers what they want to hear about trade deals and Brexit having straightforward solutions, on the basis of apparently limited expertise. However implausible what they say frequently seems, these voices have typically received equal billing in the UK national debate played out in the media.
Perhaps an adjustment period was always going to be required for the UK in negotiating. There may have to be further failures before the realisation that the nature of trade policy requires careful political management, or perhaps there will be time for some more sober reflection once Brexit has taken place. Unfortunately the failures have already have a cost, whether in money wasted by business preparing for a no-deal Brexit, or investment not happening due to uncertainty. At the current rate of progress the UK’s first Free Trade Agreements will not come close to maximising business opportunities.
An increasing number of books and articles are being written about the UK Governments failings in Brexit negotiations to date. At the moment it looks like the coming years will provide further opportunities, as lessons are not being learned. There’s still time, for we still don’t know when Brexit phase 1 might end, but currently little sign of a UK that negotiates competently with other countries, but reserves most attention to negotiating domestically.