Opinion: Sending hundreds of civil servants to Brussels to talk trade is no substitute for detail

Written by Jill Rutter on 12 April 2018 in Opinion
Opinion

The UK government needs to set out proposals – not just send negotiators – to make progress on post-Brexit trade, says the Institute for Government’s Jill Rutter

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David Davis, secretary of state for Exiting the EU, promised the “row of the summer” over the phasing of the Brexit talks last year, which rapidly resulted in a complete acceptance of the European Commission’s timetable. Reports suggest he just had the “row of the spring” – this time with the Prime Minister’s top Europe adviser, Olly Robbins, over the handling of the next round of negotiations.

This is a battle he has apparently won. So the Brexit secretary now gets his wish to send “hundreds of civil servants” to Brussels in an attempt to nail down a trade deal by the autumn, arguing that we need to do that while the financial settlement is still in play. Leave the detailed negotiations to the transition phase, and the cards are even more stacked in favour of the EU than they were in phase one of the negotiations: a hard exit deadline but no significant money at stake.


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The first thing to remember is that phase one of the Brexit negotiations is not yet a done deal. Despite the common ground reached in March, detailed talks are still going on about the trickiest issues: Ireland (where the prime minister rejected the Commission draft out of hand) and governance.

Of course, the UK has long argued that the Irish border question needs to be settled in the context of the future UK-EU relationship. If it is going to have something more palatable than the backstop protocol, the UK needs to have made progress on the future trading agreement. The next crunch point on Ireland will come in the run up to the June European Council – not in the autumn.

The lesson of last summer is that the EU tends to get its way on the handling of the negotiations. And the EU’s priority is nailing down the withdrawal agreement alongside a political declaration – maybe running to 20–30 pages – on the future relationship. The EU guidelines, approved by the Council in March, are directed at that sort of outcome rather than a detailed mandate. 

The EU’s view of sequencing is that the real negotiations start after the UK leaves the bloc in March 2019 – and the set up for negotiating would be very different to the current, Barnier-led process.

“Hundreds of civil servants” would be much better employed developing concrete propositions

The UK government published a number of future partnership papers last summer. But these were mostly essays about the current state of play (and asks to preserve it) – intended more to mark progress in internal education of ministers than negotiating propositions. The heavy lifting of producing detailed legal texts – as opposed to tortuously-agreed speeches – was left entirely to the Commission.

If the UK wants to show that it is ready to move the talks onto substantive discussions, it should follow up the prime minister’s Mansion House speech with a series of detailed papers on how the propositions would work. These should address how the UK would maintain standards on environmental and social protection and “substantial alignment” on product standards; how mutual recognition for financial services would work; the proposed new regime for broadcasting; dispute resolution and governance mechanisms; what we are prepared to accept on fisheries access; and how the “new customs partnership” might work.

The government needs the processes in place to engage beyond Whitehall – for example, with business – and for making the essential trade-offs and compromises any detailed negotiation requires. It is far from clear that Whitehall departments are geared up to support that sort of detailed work.

The prime minister finished her Mansion House speech with an exhortation: “So let’s get on with it.” But there was no apparent awareness of the vacuum left since December while the UK tried to unite the Cabinet on a way forward. Since that speech, and since the March Council gave the green light to future partnership negotiations, the silence from the UK side has been deafening – and perhaps these internal rows about how to proceed explain why.

But if the UK does not have detailed ideas of what it wants, there is no point splashing out on Eurostar fares for hundreds of civil servants.

This article was first published on the Institute for Government's website

About the author

Jill Rutter is programme director at the Institute for Government, where she directs its work on Brexit

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