Here’s how Theresa May needs to approach the Brexit negotiations

Here’s how Theresa May needs to approach the Brexit negotiations

We have passed another mid-winter. Our January days are once more getting longer. But after a momentous 2016, we know this year that the spring equinox will barely have passed before our Brexit negotiations proper will be underway.

The anticipation – you could say the impatience in some quarters – is thick in the air.

There has been much talk of what sort of Brexit we should aim for – hard or soft, clean or messy, immediate or transitional – without any real agreement on what each of these terms mean. For example, many who argue for a “soft Brexit” really hope they can ignore the referendum result and stop the UK leaving the EU, while some who argue for a “clean Brexit” think that simply cutting all ties with the EU now could be achieved overnight without any repercussions.

Rather than try to theorise on different types of Brexit, we should keep foremost in our minds the following questions: who it is for and what we want to achieve? We must avoid the outcome being seen just as a “Big Bankers’ Brexit” or indeed just a farmers’ or fishermen’s Brexit.

In her New Year’s message, the Prime Minister rightly avoided these categorisations when she made it clear that she will aim for “the right deal for every single person in this country”. Just as Theresa May wants a Britain that works for everyone, she wants a Brexit that works for all.

That is not to say we will ignore legitimate concerns of different sectors for the economy. For example, most of us want to ensure that London remains a pre-eminent global financial centre, yet at the same time the Government must be wary of firms that “cry wolf”. I recall the lobbyist from a British retail bank who couldn’t answer my question about why they needed an EU passport when all their customers are based in the UK.

It is crucial that opportunities created by Brexit extend to the whole of the United Kingdom, not just to the finance houses and corporate giants. If this Brexit does not benefit the parts of Britain that voted for it, it will have failed. The people who voted Leave because they felt they had been marginalised would feel let down once more by the political class.

Therefore, before Article 50 is invoked and we begin negotiations, the UK Government must consider a number of factors.

Be clear about our priorities
This does not mean the UK should reveal its hand. The demands of Labour and Lib Dems that we reveal our playing cards to the world tells us all we need to know about them: either they are naively unfit for government or, worse, they want the UK to fail in these negotiations. They seem to dream of the UK going cap in hand to the EU and begging to be let back in on worse terms.

Set the right tone
In Brussels, the mood music matters. The UK Government should seek to enter these negotiations in a spirit of co-operation, making it clear that we do not see leaving the EU as a zero sum game, nor do we hope that this will lead to the break-up of the EU. Instead, we hope that both sides will see it in both our interests to have a prosperous UK enjoying a good trading and political relationship with a prosperous EU.

At the same time, we should also be prepared for the fact that not everyone will act in a rational way and there will still be some voices calling for the UK to be punished for daring to leave or as a disincentive to political parties in other EU countries questioning their membership of the EU.

Understand how the EU negotiates
In trade negotiations, the EU usually divides its goals into offensive interests (the markets or sectors it wishes to gain access to) and defensive interests (those it wishes to keep closed). While this is not purely a trade negotiation, it would be wise to look at negotiations in this light.

Of course, we will be facing an EU seeking to close some markets or sectors that are currently open to British companies. There will also be many parts of the existing relationship that the UK will be seeking to leave. However, there will be also be areas of mutual interest where in an ideal world we would continue to co-operate, such as on sharing intelligence or even on some security operations.

Identify potential trade-offs
Even these mutual interests may need to be reviewed in the light of other demands. For example, while German car makers or French farmers may want open markets to continue to sell their products to the UK, some German and French finance firms may want to erect barriers to UK financial and other professional services.

Know the EU is more than the sum of its parts
It should also be remembered that the EU is not a monolithic organisation. There are three EU institutions involved: the European Council (representing the 27 other EU governments), the European Commission and the European Parliament. They will not always agree.

While many in Brussels were impatient for Article 50 to be invoked, the EU was itself not ready for negotiations. At the end of 2016, the three EU institutions finally agreed their respective roles amongst themselves. While Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty stipulates that negotiations with the UK will be “concluded on behalf of the Union by the Council, acting by a qualified majority, after obtaining the consent of the European Parliament”, the European Council agreed to ask the Commission to do the bulk of the heavy lifting in negotiations.

While the European Council has been trying to sideline the European Parliament, the Prime Minister and British ministers have met with senior MEPs, and this is clearly appreciated.

In December, after the formal EU council of 28 national leaders, the 27 other heads of government had a separate meeting to prepare for Brexit negotiations. This was reassuring, since it demonstrated that the EU has finally got the message that the UK will be leaving.

The role of the EU 27 also throws up some opportunities as well as threats for the UK Government. While some some governments such as the French have been hostile in public, I have met Prime Ministers, other ministers, ambassadors and MEPs from other EU countries who – while expressing regret that the UK will be leaving – were emphasising the need for strong bilateral relations between their individual countries and the UK. Many have offered to help us at the Council if and when the negotiations get tough. We should be nurturing these important bilateral relationships.

All this highlights the fact that these negotiations will be carried out at many different levels, UK to EU, talking to different institutions, UK to individual countries, sector by sector, exiting the EU and a new agreement.

Ask for more than you want
In an article entitled “Learn lessons from the failed negotiation” published in The Times (£), David Cameron’s former adviser, Mats Persson, wrote about a European diplomat who told him “In Europe, we ask for 10 things in order to get six, you ask for four things to get four. Why?”

In any negotiations, we should always ask for things that would be nice to have but would not be deal breakers. The EU will do the same to the UK: note Michel Barnier’s supposed demand for €60 billion to leave the EU. We should be constructing similar demands of the EU.

Be prepared to walk away
We should enter these negotiations with an intention to succeed but not being afraid to walk away if we don’t get a deal we are happy with. At some stage, the UK Government may have to make it clear that we will not simply accept any deal and would be prepared to walk away and settle for a WTO relationship with the EU, even though we would prefer a tailored EU-UK deal.

Keep a cool head and steady hand
Fortunately, Theresa May has both. She has a reputation in Brussels as a tough and shrewd negotiator. Her time as Home Secretary is recalled when she took the UK out of the Justice and Home Affairs chapter of the Lisbon Treaty, then opted back into individual measures where she felt in was in our interest to co-operate.

While Labour, Lib Dems and some Conservatives who wish to block Brexit will criticise every move by the Prime Minister, my hope is that those who voted for Brexit put aside their impatience and not cramp her style. Be patient. Give her room to manoeuvre, space to breathe and time to tune our demands. For every detail given in public of our position is a hostage to fortune, an advantage handed to other side, a stick to beat our negotiators and our PM with.

Elvis Presley once warned that “only fools rush in” – greater wisdom from a late singer than a whole bank of opposition benches could muster. Look at the egg on the face on many of those who treated Sir Ivan Rogers’ resignation as a disaster only to see a clearly composed Prime Minister, very much in control, appoint a successor within a day.

The PM may be doing things the hard way, but she is doing them the best way. She knows her principled “no running commentary” mantra means a long, rocky road, but she is battling her way along it.

She realises she is frustrating EU officials, the opposition, Brexiteers and the media for good measure. Too bad, because she is determined to ignore the siren voices and do what is best for Britain.

Quite simply, the Prime Minister deserves our support and much, much more of our understanding than she has had so far – from inside her own party as well as outside of it.