The wrong lesson from the 2016 renegotiation

4th November 2019

Before the referendum, there was the renegotiation.

This was the renegotiation that was finalised at the European Council in February 2016.

The deal then agreed in principle between the United Kingdom and the other 27 member states of the European Union may not seem important now.

The deal never had effect, as it was rescinded after the referendum result.

The deal did not even feature much in the referendum campaign.

It now seems almost a footnote.

But looking back, with the benefit of perspective (if not hindsight), the deal is a telling prelude of much of what has followed.

Egged on by think tankers, political advisers and pundits, the then prime minister David Cameron sought, among other things, to obtain an emergency brake on EU migration.

He was warned by wise heads that such a thing could not be agreed short of amending the EU treaties.

And that it certainly could not be agreed at a mere European Council meeting.

So it was not: such an objective was impossible, and Cameron failed.

All that could be changed in respect of migration was some minor tinkering with indexation and entitlement to benefits.

Even Cameron, in his recently published memoirs, admits to mistakes about the renegotiation, including the framing of domestic expectations.

And he indeed misled his political and media supporters in what could have been plausibly agreed at that Council meeting.

Demanding things from the EU is easy, getting agreement from the EU is not easy.

Unfortunately, many Brexiters seem to have taken a different message from Cameron’s failure.

Cameron, they aver, did not try hard enough, he was too soft.

In essence, say the Brexiters, he should been louder in insisting on what was described as impossible: it was a failure of political will.

This lack of realism has been carried forward to the current Brexit negotiations.

This is why, when the pushes did not even get to be shoves, the pro-Brexit government has had to accept a withdrawal agreement on terms that suit the EU.

The EU is a creature of law that takes the single market seriously.

And this is why the same problem will arise with any future trade agreement.

Demanding something that cannot be done does not work, even if it is shouted slowly in English.


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29 thoughts on “The wrong lesson from the 2016 renegotiation”

  1. Any excellent blog again – Thank You!

    I cannot and could not bring myself to read Cameron’s memoirs. Not only was his renegotiation strategy poor, he had not thought through the consequences for the UK’s position in the EU had Remain won the referendum. He must bear most of the responsibility for Brexit and the perilous state of representative democracy in the UK.

  2. A bit like claiming this election is not all about brexit. Everything about the future of this country comes down to relations with Europe. If that’s not brexit then what is?

  3. “The EU is a creature of law that takes the single market seriously.”

    This should be the screensaver for all British negotiators and commentators. The fundamental misunderstanding has been to think that the Commission, representing the EU, is a form of carpet salesman that will haggle for the best deal. It would be more appropriate to think of the Commission as a prosecutor that will apply a deal according to a tariff depending on what the other party will admit to. Not a perfect analogy but perhaps gets across the limited – very limited – room for manoeuvre that negotiators are allowed.

    All senior officials in the Commission will have undergone an intensive training in negotiation conducted by experts (sorry Mr Gove) that teach them to understand how to appreciate, and build on, the constraints of their opposite parties. I wish I could believe that any British officials and negotiators had done the same.

    1. One of the strands of Remainer thought is a quasi-religious one which this comment veers towards. The EU is an all-powerful body; we are weak and helpless in front of it! The EU is a body of all-seeing wisdom, look at the experts! Look at the thoroughness of their work: we are ignorant fools incapable of rational thought. The EU is a vengeful organisation that rightly punishes those who doubt it! All hail the EU!

      This is not democracy or anything approaching it. The idea that we would remain in the EU and be subject to a rule such as this, where a UK political class inflict quasi-religious punishments on those challenging the authority over the water, is simply intolerable to many people.

      Central to this is the role of technocrats such as economists. They perform the same role as shamen did to early authority. Authority pronounces, and the shamen step up, slaughtering a goat and inspecting the entrails, and then pronouncing the truth of the proclamations, giving divine authority to the pronouncement. Who are you fools to challenge the word of authority? Have not the shamen inspected the entrails of a goat? Did God give you the power to interpret his signs? No, he gave it to these Shamen here, and they have pronounced his approval.

      1. As usual a straw an argument. All this article is saying is that the U.K. government has failed to understand the rules of the game and the opposition strategy – not that the EU is all powerful.

      2. Realise it’s a minor point of no political importance, but the word shaman is unrelated to the word man. The plural is shamans.

      3. The UK political class have bent over backwards for 3 years to accommodate the unrealistically high expectations of Eurosceptics and Leavers. Pretty much the opposite of persecuting the poor lambs.

      4. “look at the experts! Look at the thoroughness of their work: we are ignorant fools incapable of rational thought.”

        The facts are that every piece of EU regulation is subject to mandatory Impact Assessments, which are then challenged and refined through a process of Inter-Service Consultation (which means that every other Directorate-General whose policy areas could be affected by a proposal is invited to contribute to validating the final IA), without which they would stand no hope of serious consideration by the relevant committees of the European Parliament. (This is, of course, a grossly simplified description of processes which involve detailed consultation not only with national governments, but also with international governance committees and ad hoc expert panels, and the Parliament throughout the process…)

        By contrast, the UK has approached Brexit with Impact Assessments which first were “excruciatingly detailed” (although not actually consulted by the Prime Minister before launching the ‘Article 50’ notification), then did not exist at all, and finally turned out to be joke homework composed of such Wikipedia-scraped insights as that the fishing industry tends to be concentrated in coastal areas! “Somewhere in Whitehall there are blank sheets…”

        The UK government refused to publish its plans for the implementation of Brexit at all until only three days before they aimed to force final Parliamentary approval, and refuses point blank to offer MPs any form of economic analysis of the latest deal (even though the Treasury has spent months preparing and modelling this), relying on a bald assertion by the Chancellor that it is “‘self-evidently’ in UK’s economic interest!”
        This when demonstrably neither the Brexit secretary himself nor the Prime Minister understands the basic consequences of what they themselves have negotiated, to the extent that different Ministers and members of the government can be found simultaneously announcing conflicting and incompatible accounts.

        “This is not democracy or anything approaching it.”

        I’m not aware of any other EU country (let alone the EU itself) where the executive can choose to send Parliament home in order to avoid it having time to even consider or express any opinion, inconvenient or otherwise, on the most major legislative proposals under consideration, let alone then use this lack of time as an excuse to try to force through extreme measures in less time than they could reasonably even be read through with adequate care.
        I’m sure it will seem odd to you, but in most countries and at EU level the Parliament itself, *not the executive*, decides, as a matter of routine, what it will debate and for how long, without having to resort to arcane and seldom-used procedures to snatch some brief respite from the control of the order-paper by the Government of the day.

        The EU executive has only once in history been threatened with censure by the Parliament, and it chose to resign rather than risk provoking an institutional crisis. The current UK Government has been found in contempt of Parliament and to have illegally stopped Parliament sitting for a third of the time available since the summer recess … and yet there it still is! And then there are the multiple violations of electoral law and the pending criminal charges…

        As for your rant about technocrats … well at least they have them!
        But they don’t occupy anything remotely resembling the role you describe: one might almost imagine that you were *completely* ignorant of every aspect of how policy is formed and decided at EU level.
        Still, those dastardly “technocrats” with their underhand expert preparation seem to have managed to smash the UK team around the field more or less at will over these negotiations, even though “we hold all the cards!” Tsk! It’s almost as if research, expertise, and preparation actually count for something … well, that and actually having any plan at all … and, erm, bothering to write it down in draft proposals for negotiation …
        Perhaps we should have tried to be more “tough,” eh? Believe harder!

        1. Thank you for taking the time to rebut these points so clearly.

          It is alarming to see the extent of wilful ignorance and disregard for expertise that is displayed by the lead brexiteers and followed by far too many of the general public who cannot possibly be expected to have any understanding of the detail and complexity of the many problems brexit raises.* This is why we have a representative democracy, i.e. elected MPs paid a full-time salary to represent their constituents and the country as a whole in the House of Commons, and who have paid advisors and access to expertise which they – engaged full time – are mandated to evaluate on our behalves. And this representative democracy is what is now seriously under threat. Do we really want mob rule? I’ve lived in countries run by a dictator or with limited democracy, and I can tell you that our democracy is very fragile, and needs constant vigilance; there is of course room for improvement, but mob rule takes us in the opposite direction.

          A public inquiry into our traditional media** (print press and mainstream TV news channel ownership) would be a good start to the review of UK democracy that we now need, and is surely a necessary parallel process alongside the inevitable brexit inquiry that will be held in future years.

          *No elitism here – I include myself with the general public. I’m an expert in my field, but I know nothing of EU law, trade negotiating, international diplomacy, or economics. Neither do I know how to fly a plane, perform brain surgery, or build a house. Likewise, most of you would not have the first thing to say about my field of expertise.
          **I leave aside for now the burning problem of social media and cyber info that needs addressing as a matter of extreme urgency

    2. “All senior officials in the Commission will have undergone an intensive training in negotiation ”
      Well, the training’s not necessarily all that, but the Commission evidently has highly experienced and proven negotiators at its disposal and has ensured that they take leading roles in the process. It is also important to appreciate that they are intimately connected with —and have often themselves been senior members of— the teams responsible for developing and implementing the relevant policies in all their critical and often overwhelming detail: the negotiations take place on terrain they have created and cultivated.
      In contrast, the UK has —as a deliberate choice!— largely eschewed those with extensive EU experience even when such were available, resulting in it relying on large number of presumably clever but nonetheless inexperienced Fast Stream intake, many of who have needed to be sent on rapid courses to cover even the basics!

  4. Mr Green
    There are broader lessons from failed renegotiation, which stem from Cameron’s repeated policy mistakes and failures .
    One of the lessons is that it appears that Cameron had no working relationship with any of the EU leaders. If anything, he had alienated them by taking the Conservative Group in the European Parliament out of the EPP. As now, the leader of the Conservative Party sought only to throw morsels of red meat to the wolves of the Tory Press, which only encouraged them to howl the more. Thus he was in a perilously weak position in his renegotiation.

    His largest policy failure was over Syria, which meant Europe collectively could only sit and watch and wait while the disaster of that civil war unfolded. Eventually the EU would try to buy off Erdogan, but only after a surge of refugees into Eastern and Central Europe had been manipulated into a political crisis, part of which blew over into the referendum.

    The worse for us, Cameron’s seat-of-the-pants, ill-thought-through policy stances appear as the work of a deep-thinking genius compared to the actions of the lazy, lying narcissist from whom we are now suffering.

    1. “If anything, he had alienated them by taking the Conservative Group in the European Parliament out of the EPP. As now, the leader of the Conservative Party sought only to throw morsels of red meat to the wolves of the Tory Press, which only encouraged them to howl the more”
      Yes, as I wrote at the time to a friend, *he* thought he was buying his Euro-sceptic cult off with (short-sighted) concessions to their obsessions: in reality he was offering them concrete evidence that they could be the king-makers in his party, and was seemingly blind to their unreasonable insatiability and lack of realism (as he was to the act that, for many, the EU fixation was a sublimation of deeper and yet more intractable issues). His subsequent imploration at the Party conference to stop “banging on about Europe” must have set a standard for ironic failure in self-awareness that will stand for centuries!

      He also:
      • tried —with his famous non-veto— to blackmail the other leaders into accepting fatal exemptions for the City from future EU regulation (a proposal which would have killed all future progress on the Single Internal Market in Financial Services besides much else) by springing a last-minute untabled proposal on them at the end of a long meeting on the Eurozone (at which his role should have be that of observer): the effect in Europe (in the UK it manufactured a short boost in the polls) was little short of show-boating at a funeral!
      • sat in a corner and obstinately sucked his thumb through the MFF negotiations;
      • prematurely tried to grab the credit for preventing the Juncker Presidency, thereby bouncing an unconvinced and equivocating Merkel into throwing her weight behind it;
      • persistently complained about EU failure to entertain his objections to Freedom of Movement, while resolutely refusing to supply any evidence or specific detail whatsoever which might have been used as a rationale for further evaluation (we would later discover, of course, that such evidence as there was actually undermined his complaints and much of it was being suppressed by one Theresa May: but Cameron’s real interest was always a leap to look “tough” on immigrants beside UKIP);
      • …

      And these are just the highlights …

  5. As Brexit Ltd makes one last gasp on 12th Dec,
    we will all witness the collision (collusion?) between fantasy and reality.

  6. There are two sides to this. There is also a lesson for the EU that a rigid system of government that ignores consequences in individual countries is going to be rejected by parts of Europe. The Head of Hungary’s central bank is in today’s FT arguing the creation of the Euro was a mistake and is calling for an exit mechanism.

    The sensible thing for the EU to do is to formally accept that a federal superstate is not an appropriate system of government for everyone in Europe, and that nations in Europe need to be given scope to chose their own degree of involvement. The idea that a consortium of nations can force other nations to accept terms against their wishes has a history in Europe, and it is not a good one.

    1. « The idea that a consortium of nations can force other nations to accept terms against their wishes… »
      But the British Empire forced other nations…
      But England still forces Scotland, NI…
      PS: no country has ever Ben forced to join the EU. No country has ever been forced to join the Euro.

      1. “But the British Empire forced other nations …”

        exactly. And what we found out is that in the long run you cannot rule a people without their consent. I’m not sure why the EU is so keen to repeat this experience.

        “England still forces Scotland, NI…”

        No it doesn’t. There is still a wish for Scotland to be in the UK, but they were offered a chance to leave. The GFA explicitly allows for NI to leave if a majority of the people wish it.

    2. “The sensible thing for the EU to do is to formally accept that a federal superstate is not an appropriate system of government for everyone in Europe, and that nations in Europe need to be given scope to chose their own degree of involvement.”

      I very sincerely doubt that the EU will ever “formally accept” your suggestion. The EU’s end goal is to create a federated Europe, as in the project of our Founding Fathers – the object being:
      1. that of excluding war in a Continent that had experienced hundreds of years of war and two world wars in one century, and
      2. that of creating the economic condition to develop peace and prosperity on the Continent.
      Furthermore, the cold war being over and world being now divided between economic and political giants, a united and federated Europe is all the more necessary, as 28 small economies could not possibly withstand the impact that the USA, China, Russia and, possibly, India would have on them.
      Apart from any ideological and existential thinking – which for any sensible European should mean a lot – that is why Brexit is a folly.
      Being an Italian writing from Italy, I should also mention how shameful I feel knowing that Italy enjoys the disgraceful primacy of the strongest populist/nationalistic party in Europe, very short of being outright fascist. I mean that if Brexit is a folly, we Italians are hardly doing better.

      1. Ciao Claudio!
        As a dear Genovese friend wrote to me recently:
        “UK ci da sempre tanta gioia. Fa sembrare tutto il resto quasi normale”

        “The UK is such a comfort to us [Italians]. It makes all the rest [of the stuff going on in Italy] look almost normal!”

    3. What “force” is there Mr Dipper (and why do you not use your own name. To describe the EU as a “rigid system of government” is simply not true. It has been about as flexible and plastic as it is possible to be. And in the meantime, even with the Euro have the Irish become less Irish, the Germans less German, the Dutch less Dutch?
      And to even use the phrase “force other nations to accept terms against their wished has a history” is about as turning black to white as it possible to do. To evoke the horrors of ultra-nationalism against the EU is plain wrong and should be withdrawn.

    4. “The idea that a consortium of nations can force other nations to accept terms against their wishes”

      As too often, Dipper, you are engaged in a furious battle against imaginary windmills of your own construction. In addition, you seek to evoke a common cause with a voice from Europe which —in spite of the British media’s hopeless propensity to seize on and promote every loud-mouthed crank or zealot as heralding a crashing wave of wildly exaggerated significance— generally represents a small to tiny and *vastly disparate* minority of malcontents and populist opportunists.

      The EU Member States have to agreed to accord to the EU —an organisation which they jointly control— legal power of strictly negotiated scope over certain defined matters which are crucially important to enabling and enhancing profitable collaboration and harmonisation between them. One can debate which matters should or should not be included —hopefully with the illumination of some pertinent facts about the benefits derived— but the Europe à la carte that you rate so “sensible” has already been considered repeatedly and at great length and rejected as a fundamental approach by the other Member States because it cannot offer anything like the benefits (such as frictionless cross-border trade) of the current approach, certainly not without a massive *loss* of sovereignty: the Single Internal Market could not function efficiently, and the SM in Services would barely exist at all!
      This sovereignty is a critical issue which is sorely misunderstood in the Brexit debate and, intentionally or otherwise, completely mis-represented by the globalist Free-Trader Brexitists: within the EU we open our borders to trade with markets which operate under common regulation to which *we* have agreed and whose in whose formation and implementation *we* have a powerful role, even as it *extends* our sovereignty by applying constraints to our closest trading partners; outside this cooperative environment there must necessarily be trade barriers to “take back control” of our borders, or else we are thrown open to all-comers and whatever arrives — and that, the Minford/Rees-Mogg strategy, is *the opposite* of sovereignty!

      ‘Article 5’ —which Brexitists have either failed to read or understand, or else whose existence they find it convenient to ignore completely— ensures that those powers cannot be applied or extended beyond their agreed scope, which means they influence only very limited, albeit vitally important, aspects of our life as a nation.
      It is precisely that rigidity to which you affect such grave objections which protects us from being forced to accept things against our wishes beyond the negotiated degree we have formally chosen to accept; indeed, without this legal clarity it would have been practically impossible to construct such an advantageous alliance and certainly impossible to manage its operation.

      I’m afraid the idea that a UK Brexit-supporter should deign to offer “lessons” about the “sensible thing” to a Europe which has carefully negotiated and incrementally chosen its path over decades of cautious steps not only risks being just as patronising as it was when David Cameron loftily proposed his party’s “vision” to help the EU understand “how it must change”, and what was “essential” to achieve a “better deal for Europe too,” but also —now that the Mother Brexit’s ideas cupboard has proved so utterly and impoverishingly bare— is embarrassingly laughable!

  7. Good point about Cameron taking his MEPs out of the EPP. That always struck me as about as daft a move as was possible. Only done as appeasement to the “bastards” and as a vague gesture towards UKIP supporters.

  8. One thing that many pro Brexit people miss, is that this is the stage of the exit that it is in the EU’s interest to be nice to us.

    Their goal is for an ‘orderly exit’. Once that is achieved the gloves will come off. Our tantrums will no longer be pandered to and we will start having to negotiate like grown ups.

  9. Dear Mr Green thanks, really helpful. Is it not important to also mention that the EU considered David Camerons demands on restriction for freedom of movement mostly for domestic audiences, since by EU law, the UK could have always applied stricter control over EU citizens coming into the country: the 3 months rule? And that in the eyes of the EU, this was a simple failure on the side of the UK?

    1. At a technical level, Bettina, it’s also worth pointing out that the EU persistently asked the UK for information and data to offer some basis for the consideration of his demands and to establish a scope for further discussion: statistics, analysis of the scale and degree of the factors involved, study of the effects in one or other critical area or sector, even just a reasonably detailed official statement of the issues at stake.

      Nothing was ever forthcoming, and the UK’s replies were, frankly, at best uncooperative and in some cases, frankly, petulant! I forget the *exact* expression, striking as it was, but in one reply Cameron rejected the EU’s request for further information as (something like) “having an undue emphasis on fact and data”! (I’m sure somebody else will know where to retrieve the letter in question.)

      The fact is that the published information on the situation in the UK (including, for example, the ‘Review of the Balance of Competences between the United Kingdom and the European Union Single Market: Free Movement of Persons’) did not offer substantial support for the merits of considering fundamental change to an approach which had been progressively refined since it originated in the ‘Treaty of Rome.’
      In addition, we know that Theresa May as the then Home Secretary had commissioned at least three reports from her officials on closely related issues (e.g. to show that UK social benefits were acting as a pull-factor attracting EU migration) and then (according to an acquaintance who was working in the Home Office) at least another four with similar themes from external contractors when these failed to tell a story which fitted the Tory’s electoral narrative.
      None of these saw the light of day: according to Vince Cable, the number of studies commissioned and buried by May along with their politically inconvenient findings was at least nine (which seems at least consistent with what I heard privately).

      Cameron’s demands were therefore often seen as unserious, perhaps even as political grandstanding intended for the domestic audience (for which he already had plenty of ‘form’), but this is chiefly because he thoroughly failed to present them in a form in which they could be accorded serious deliberation. Perhaps this reflects another fundamental failure on Cameron’s part to understand how the EU works: as I’ve mentioned elsewhere beneath this article, even relatively minor policy initiatives demand an accompanying apparatus of data, analysis, evidence to be properly reviewed and balanced against multiple priorities.
      And how could the Union practically operate otherwise? In a Union of 28 independent Member States it is neither feasible nor desirable to embark on discussions re-opening the most fundamental treaties merely in order to gratify the craving for an ephemeral boost in the polls of one or other national politician, let alone “because I say so!”

  10. “The EU is a creature of law that takes the single market seriously.”

    I would go some distance further than this rather innocent expression and point out that, if one understands the nature and purpose of the organisation, it is self-evident that it has little or no practical choice but to be a “creature of law.” Perhaps the UK’s history of single-party government and it’s lack of a codified constitution —blurring the boundaries between the legislative, executive, constitutional, legal, and operational roles of government and governance— have left it at a disadvantage in comprehending such a beast, but *what* do they actually teach in PPE??? Cameron’s approach to “negotiating” with this bear was to first demand that it be a unicorn (and to promise all and sundry that he cold make it so!).

    As for the Single Internal Market, the UK’s profoundly unserious reporting and understanding of all things EU means that it has fixated endlessly on the (in reality rather modest and functionally inevitable) obligations of membership, rather than appreciating the benefits and recognising what it aims to achieve and what is required to make these things possible; with the advent of withdrawal, it is about to undergo an excruciating lesson in the underlying calculus and rationale.

    Ironically, given the massive importance of services to the UK economy and the loud complaints by Leave campaigners about its incompleteness, the UK is about to discover that —with all its current limitations and omissions— the the Single Market in Services is “only” by far the largest, most sophisticated and successful such arrangement on the planet (just as, in spite of not having finalised an FTA with India, the EU is “only” India’s largest trading partner). In some respects it is even more integrated than the USA. Even when provisions on services are covered in those “trade deals” of which we constantly hear so much, they tend to amount to not much more than warm words and long-term aspirations in practice.

    It turns out —who could have known?(!)— that, because they interact with almost everything else, reducing and eliminating barriers to international trade in services is difficult and painstaking (and necessarily legalistic!) work, and often requires a degree of cooperation and harmonisation which borders on the political realm. Multiply so in the financial services which are so critical to the UK!

    Furthermore, the effects of leaving and, in particular, the short-sighted obsession with ending Freedom of Movement are set to be particularly savage and devastating for SMEs and small contractors (e.g. musicians) who rely on selling services across Europe, as well as radically devaluing the skills and employability of UK citizens in the EU.

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