4th February 2020
Yesterday was the first working day since the United Kingdom formally left the European Union.
The European Union chief negotiator produced draft negotiation guidelines for the next stage of the Brexit process: that is the future relationship agreement between the United Kingdom and the European Union.
You can read the draft here, thirty-three pages of detailed guidelines, which if adopted will shape the next stage of the negotiations.
Back in March-April 2017, after the Article 50 notification, a similar set of guidelines shaped how the European Union approached – and then prevailed in – the withdrawal agreement negotiations.
The European Union negotiators put thought into and prepare for such negotiations: they understand process.
Yesterday, the United Kingdom government could have published a similar document: say, a draft negotiation document for the Prime Minister to put before Parliament for approval.
There would be no problem with the Prime Minister doing this: he has had the civil service machine at his disposal since summer – plenty of time for the government to know what it wants from the next stage of negotiations, especially as he wants the agreement in place by the end of this year.
And there would be no risk for the Prime Minister in doing this either: unlike his predecessor, he has a majority in the House of Commons and so he could be confident of any such guidelines getting parliamentary approval.
But the United Kingdom government did not produce similar guidelines.
There was, it must be admitted, a written statement, but it was in such a high-level wish-list form that it would barely qualify as heads of terms for the upcoming negotiation.
The failure of the United Kingdom government to publish a document as detailed as that of the European Union has one obvious explanation, given what happened (and did not happen) between 2016 and 2020.
That explanation is not that the United Kingdom government has some cunning plan that it is keeping close to its chest.
The obvious explanation for the United Kingdom government not publishing a document as detailed as that of the European Union is that it has (currently) no proposals as detailed as those of the European Union.
As in 2016-2020, the United Kingdom does not have a clue in practical or detailed terms what to do next.
There was, however, a significant text published yesterday – the first working day of Brexit – by the United Kingdom government.
This was the tub-thumping speech of the Prime Minister about free trade.
A speech that did not mention Brexit once.
A speech so full of cod-economics and cod-history that it would make an A-level student blush.
A speech that was an exercise in whimsical nostalgia, rich in superficial cleverness.
A speech you would expect from the eternal essay-crisis examination-crammers of this witless winging-it government.
This was the first blast of the United Kingdom government’s trumpet on its first working day of supposed liberation.
There could have been no more telling contrast to the detailed European Union proposals published the same day.
Any sensible person wants these negotiations to go well, and as a United Kingdom citizen and resident I want these negotiations to go well for the United Kingdom.
Nothing here is a cheer for the European Union, who are now to us as much of a “third” entity as we are to them.
But one does not do well in negotiations (or any bilateral exercise) by not understanding counter parties or opponents.
The United Kingdom government should be meeting detail with detail, process with process.
There is certainly no excuse not to realise this, given the hard experience of the exit negotiations.
And the United Kingdom government can do detail and process when it wants to do: after all, the European Union’s single market is itself a triumph of British pragmatism and planning.
At some point, it will become painfully obvious that yet more flag waving and bombast will not be enough.
(And anyone with a decent grasp of history will tell you that flag waving and bombast was certainly not enough in those supposedly glorious Elizabethan, Victorian and World War II times beloved of Brexiteers: drudgery and attention to detail always mattered.)
The two texts of the first working day of Brexit – the European Union detailed proposals and the Prime Minister’s Greenwich speech – are the first two moves for the next phase.
And one shows serious preparation for what happens next, and the other shows none at all.
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