The eight mistakes I saw the UK make in the Brexit negotiations

The eight mistakes I saw the UK make in the Brexit negotiations

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, sometimes used to unfairly criticise the past, but it also allows us to learn from our mistakes. During my 14 years as a MEP, I saw a number of mistakes which led us to where we are now in the negotiations. I list the main ones here, not necessarily to criticise or blame but in the hope that future negotiators will take at least some of them into account.

1. Viewing the EU as a free trade area

When I first became a MEP in May 2005, it was around the time that the French and the Dutch voted no in their referendums on the European Constitution. As MEPs reflected on the vote by the people of two of the most supposedly pro-EU countries, a leading German MEP declared that nothing must be allowed to get in the way of the “European Project” of further political and economic integration. When I protested that this was not what the British signed up for, I was told to read EU history.

Some British people complain that we joined a free trade area which became a political project, but ever since the days of Robert Schuman and Jean Monnet, the EU and its predecessor organisations have always had the goal of creating a political union, while the UK public debate has tended to view the EU in a transactional way as a free trade area. Indeed, one of my frustrations over the years were the British politicians of all parties (including Conservatives) who in Brussels would declare their support for the EU project or would not oppose it – but once back in the UK would use phrases such as “shared sovereignty” and talk up the benefits of trade with the EU. In all my time, the former Lib Dem MEP, Andrew Duff, was the only British pro-EU integration politician who had the honesty to say the same thing on both sides of the Channel.

2. Not asking for more than we wanted

One of the principles of negotiations is to ask for more than you want (as I suggested to then Prime Minister Theresa May via this 2017 article on BrexitCentral). When David Cameron went to negotiate the new relationship with the EU to put to a referendum, he asked for four things. As one of his advisors, Mats Persson, wrote afterwards, he was asked by an EU 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?”

3. A lack of preparation

Before any general election, the civil service prepares for the prospect of different governments, usually a Conservative or Labour government. Therefore, it was surprising that papers were not prepared for a referendum vote to leave the EU. In speaking to civil servants, advisors and politicians, it seems that there was a concern that any papers preparing for a Leave vote would be leaked and inflame a furious debate between those who agreed with the conclusions and those who saw it as propaganda. In fact, the government did use taxpayers’ money to send out a biased mailing to all households, warning of the dangers of a Leave vote, but it did not prevent the British people from seeing through it. Leave campaigners had prepared a detailed document, but this was dismissed by supporters of the Remain campaign. Concerns over the public reaction should not have been a barrier to preparation.

4. Allowing the EU to play hardball

While EU leaders and officials could not believe that any member state would vote to leave the EU, they also feared that if the UK left and made a success of it, this might encourage other countries to leave. In the immediate aftermath of the referendum, some of my non-British colleagues in the European Parliament feared that the EU was facing a battle for its very existence and explained that they would have to be very tough in negotiations to disincentivise other countries from leaving. This was not the EU being nasty as some in the UK have claimed, but simply being hard-headed.

As the negotiations continued and the unity of the EU held, the goal shifted to preventing the UK being seen to get – what they saw – as good a deal outside the EU as inside. This strategy succeeded so much so that at the 2019 European elections, parties in other EU states that had previously campaigned for their countries to leave the EU quietly dropped exiting the EU from their manifestos. UK commentators failed to understand this fear for existence which led to the EU playing hardball, while the UK Government seemingly approached the negotiations as a series of friendly conversations with both sides aiming for a win-win scenario.

5. Allowing the EU to seize the initiative

I was in Brussels on the morning after the referendum in a meeting of political group leaders. There was clearly shock at the referendum result with EU leaders, MEPs, Commissioners and others wondering whether what to do next. But then David Cameron resigned, triggering a leadership election. While the Conservative Party embarked on a leadership contest, losing focus on the negotiations to come, the EU was able to get its ducks in a row, appoint Michel Barnier as the chief negotiator and establish the process for the negotiations. The Conservative leadership election gave the EU the chance to seize control of negotiations.

6. Agreeing to EU sequencing of the negotiations

By the time Theresa May became Prime Minister in July 2016, the EU had already decided on its negotiating strategy, including separating the Withdrawal Agreement from the future relationship. The new Prime Minister’s team meekly accepted the sequencing rather than insisting on parallel talks on both the withdrawal and future relationships agreements. This allowed the EU to bog down the UK in the three issues of money, EU citizens’ rights and the Irish border. In reality, EU negotiators knew that the Irish border could have been solved by a new EU-UK Free Trade Agreement, but by refusing to discuss a trade agreement until after any Withdrawal Agreement, the border eventually became the sticking point. If the UK had been tougher with the EU at this stage and insisted on parallel negotiations of both the Withdrawal Agreement and future relationship, we could have avoided this.

7. Not being clear about the future relationship we want

The EU likes to use templates for negotiations. For example, in trade negotiations, the EU will use the EU-Singapore Free Trade Agreement as a template for trade agreements with other ASEAN countries. Similarly, when the EU asked the UK what sort of relationship it wanted if and when the Withdrawal Agreement was agreed, UK negotiators always replied: “the closest possible relationship”. This meant nothing.

One of my frustrations when speaking to Michel Barnier was his insistence that the UK Government still didn’t know what it wanted since it refused to speak in terms of existing templates such as customs union, EEA- or Canada+++ . In one meeting I had with an EU Prime Minister, EU ministers and leading MEPs, I suggested Canada +++ and we had a discussion on what the pluses meant e.g. services, security cooperation etc. I was told to tell the UK Government to ask for this, but the Prime Minister’s advisors repeated the meaningless mantra of “closest possible relationship.” Michel Barnier was always clear that he thought the best future relationship was for the UK to remain in the EU customs union. It was no surprise that the initial Withdrawal Agreement reflected this.

8. Not being prepared to walk away

Most seasoned negotiators will tell you that you have to maintain the right to walk away from negotiations, whether it be a plumber who gives you an outrageous initial quote or negotiations between trade unions and company bosses. So too in EU negotiations. During my years as an MEP, when negotiating on behalf of the European Parliament with the European Commission and the Council representing the EU’s 28 governments, I had walked away, to be called back to the table at a later date and resume negotiations where we reached a deal.

In one of my last negotiations, I found it ironic that Green and Labour MEPs insisted that we walked away from negotiations with the European Commission and Council if we did not get our way. When I asked why they were prepared to “leave No Deal on the table” for these negotiations but criticised the UK Government for even thinking of leaving No Deal on the table, they laughed and changed the subject. It was quite clear they wanted to weaken the UK’s hand in the hope that we remained in the EU.

So have some of these lessons already been learned?

To be fair to Boris Johnson’s Government, it has played hard ball, insisting on retaining the right to walk away in the hope of getting a better deal. Despite the best efforts of the other parties and some former Conservatives to undermine the UK position, the EU is discussing opening up or amending the Withdrawal Agreement, despite previously refusing to do so.

Only time will tell if it’s too little too late.