A tale of two texts – what the United Kingdom should have published yesterday but did not

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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31 thoughts on “A tale of two texts – what the United Kingdom should have published yesterday but did not”

  1. A cynic might say, “why bother with developing process and detail yourself when those you are negotiating with have proposals that you have no choice but to follow?”.

    The UK is now in more danger of becoming a vassal state of the EU than ever it was before.

  2. It is disturbing for anyone who loves this country. Mr Johnson had eight years working with serious people who did a serious job in governing London. Some of his London initiatives can be criticised as gesture politics, but we could be forgiven for thinking that he would have learnt how real world success comes from hard work and taking people along with you. This stuff is disrespecting the people of Britain. He doesn’t seem to trust us.

  3. Agreed. Too much Flag waving and bolster…..I feel economic and political policy is treated as a street party where flag waving is compulsory otherwise you are a traitor. To make the best of leaving Brexit needs serious trade negotion and knuckling down rather than more Boris speak

  4. Attention to detail is important when you take responsibility for the process and outcome. Since this government, and indeed the Brexit campaign, has never given a thought for the long term consequences of the project, only the superficial veneer, it has no need to put effort into a detail proposal for the ongoing relationship. Instead of taking responsibility and investing in getting as good an arrangement secured as possible, the campaigners for Brexit are putting their efforts into concocting narratives to place the blame for failure upon the remain campaign.

    1. Perhaps this government does not want a meaningful trade deal? They merely want to be able blame the EU for making things impossible, then pursue whatever agenda it is that men like Cummings actually have in mind. It’s now, after all, their show for five years.

      1. Sam, that thought occurred to me as well.

        I wouldn’t be surprised if, by June, the press is full of stories about the EU bullying Britain and how it’s all someone else’s fault that Johnson has requested an extension…

      2. Yes, this explanation (that they wish to engineer a hard Brexit, to facilitate a hard-right agenda, and blame it on the nasty obdurate foreigners) fits best with the facts…

  5. As previously our gouvernement states forcefully what it does not want but seems unable or unwilling to articulate what its true objectives are and how to achieve them. Could it be because there is no agreement within government or because the government doesn’t want business and the public to know its true objectives? Whatever the causes it is embarrassing. One hoped that with “Brexit done” we would move on to serious and adult discussions to achieve a win/ win result which are the staple of good constructive negotiations. Alas we are still in a bombastic playground

    1. “Could it be because…”
      It could indeed be (and probably partly is) because the Government does not want to admit to its true objectives, but there can be little doubt that a major factor is that there are no rationally credible goals to be pursued —Brexit is no solution of any of our real problems, recognised or as yet implicit— and none of the (even vague) objectives suggested thus far is remotely likely to be realised or amount to anything significant if it is.

      To me the main objective looks to be to maintain power and avoid scrutiny by fostering a climate of resentment, grievance, anger, fear, hatred, and a paranoid sense of victimhood, and using it to demand uncritical “patriotic” support. It’s pretty much a standard recipe and “works the same way in any country.”

      “One hoped that with “Brexit done” we would move on to serious and adult discussions…”
      What, if anything, in the unfolding events of the past few years gave rise to such hope?

  6. How true. I, and others, have been saying for years that negotiation is a skill that can be taught, learnt and practised – and the Commission knows that and has been doing that for years. Even I, a middle management official in a non-trade area, was expected and enabled to follow intensive theoretical and practical training in the field.

    Anyone who wants to know the British Civil Service (and politicians’) approach could do worse than consult Yes Minister: my understanding is that things have changed very little in the 40+ years since Hacker’s memoirs were published.

    As it is we get laughable statements like “we mustn’t reveal our objectives because that would be giving away information”. Truer would be “We can’t reveal our objectives because we don’t have a clue what they are”.

    1. David, have they published their theoretical and practical training modules for the public to use? I would like to be a better negotiator, and listening to trade negotiators (and it has to be said, lawyers) I have a long way to go.

      This is brought home by dealing with an estate agent at the moment. Though what good is negotiation against Johnson-style bombast?

      1. The courses I followed date back around eight or nine years. They were led by Alain Lempereur and colleagues from ESSEC Business School, Paris (surprise?). Interestingly, the main textbook they used, “The First Move”, ISBN 978-0-470-75008-7, thanks – among a large group of European names – Michel Barnier (in 2010)!

    2. I’m not entirely convinced that the courses are so useful per se, David, but I suspect that the actual process of following them probably is a lot more so, in the sense that:
      • they offer a collection of material —examples, processes, considerations, situations— which can prompt the curious attendee to reflect further on how negotiations are shaped and the dynamics of how they develop, even if the courses don’t necessarily offer solutions to the sorts of problems encountered in the wild;
      • in particular, the more useful parts (imo) encourage focus on foreseeing the likely effects and outcome from various actions or positions, rather than an instrumental, “I do this because I think the result ought to be that”;
      • they expose one to a decent range of examples of things which definitely don’t and can’t work, and help to illustrate why not;
      • as well, of course, as inculcating a basic understanding of the structure and elements of real negotiations, and awareness of check-lists of aspects which should not be overlooked.

      As for the laughable statements, I suspect they come *far* more from the political side than from officials, although I too sometimes have the impression when looking at some of the output which we must assume has come from the British Civil Service that procedures and other elements that we would consider basic fundamentals of sound policy-making are either absent or being skipped: “How on earth did *that* make it into a public policy document?” is a depressingly common feeling as one scoops one’s jaw back into place.

      My impression, though, is that working for the Commission is quite a different experience from the UK Civil Service, in that in the former objectives are usually, at least to some degree (pace DG TRADE), transparently defined and documented (e.g. by statements and communications adopted by the council and budgets & work-plans approved by the Parliament) and approaches to achieving them generally need to be justified by rational arguments and facts; in the UK far more seems to be fixed for political ends by ministers and SpAds or by horse-trading behind the scenes.

      As for the UK approach to ‘negotiation’: for me the last three years has truly been one long stream of “OMG Nooo!” and dizzying eye-rolling: … “they’re framing the whole thing as a *conflict*!” … “Ouch! Strategy of commitment *never* works when you announce it up-front: that’s going to be painful!” … “You’re putting *security cooperation* on the table as leverage to get a better deal on fishing or financial services??? SELL!!!” … “Surely only pre-teens could think that talking loudly about ‘walking away’ is a viable tactic” …

      1. Entirely agree that following a course (or even two) will not make an expert negotiator. What it does do is
        1) Inculcate some of the principles involved so that the person involved at least understands the rules of the game and what the other side is trying to do;
        2) Allow the ‘student’ to better manage or support negotiations for which s/he may have some responsibility or input even when not the face-to-face negotiator.

        Also, as you say, the mere fact of providing this kind of resource demonstrates that the institution takes negotiation seriously and does not propose to rely entirely on the ‘Good Chap’ approach – or believe that shouting loudly while sticking fingers in one’s ears is the way to get your proposals accepted.

  7. If he bravados us too far from EU regs in the face of business warnings, then he will be blamed when the gdp and credit ratings tank. So instead he may bluff and bluster for what he can get then fold. Again.
    Inspiring.

  8. This feels to me exactly like the withdrawal agreement process.

    Public statements are not addressed to the EU or relevant to the negotiaton, they are addressed to his base, and aim to convince them he is doing maximum possible for the brexittiest Brexit.

    In the end rather than face immeadiate crisis, he simply chose from the withdrawal options presented by the EU. And because he had his team in the tank – it didn’t matter what that option was.

    He’s not attempting to negotiate. He’s putting on a show.

    I wouldn’t be enormously surprised if we end up with a Norway for now deal. Absolute right to diverge, if it is ever in our interest, with crushing consequences to prevent it ever being in our interest.

    How sustainable it is, no idea. But it would seem the path of least resistance.

    1. “I wouldn’t be enormously surprised if we end up with a Norway for now deal. ”
      It would be a comforting thought, but I think it’s rather too late for that now.
      Worth pointing out that a prominent insistence on your right to diverge at will imposes huge costs up-front. Standards are important, but without formal guarantees and mechanisms to ensure implementation, monitoring, enforcement, remedies, arbitration they don’t actually count for much by themselves.

      What I’ve also heard from some on the EU side is that the UK really enjoys little or no trust, least of all with Johnson as PM.

      We’re about to become painfully aware that the UK has already been in dispute with the EU on some critical issues —e.g. Data Protection— for over a decade in some cases, and that its track record in recent years —massive failure to enforce tariffs, VAT Carousel Fraud, completely ineffective audit of CAP payments, illegal copying and retention of SIS II data, sharing it with the USA, hacking Belgacom, …— offers little or no basis for ongoing trust.

      There is an absolutely vital, but little discussed, distinction between being inside the EU and outside: a Member State is obliged to implement and respect EU law and regulations in good faith to the best of its abilities and, in return for that commitment, all the other MSs are obliged to accept that they are doing so unless the Commission, as the guardian of the treaties, formally decides that they are in breach, usually as the outcome of Infringement Proceedings. The latter escalate very gradually and, when differences are not resolved by negotiation, involve several trips to the ECJ before any concrete action results, often after more than a decade!
      Outside, you don’t get have any such benefit of the doubt, and the Commission can simply decide that you are in breach of obligations: this could typically shut down an entire sector of trade in just 30 days.

      1. You are probably correct about patience of the EU and certainly right that the EU would retain the ability to shut down large sections of the economy at no notice.

        But.

        I still think it likely the EU would be willing to defer a 1st Jan crisis to an undetermined date in future when the UK does something stupid.

        I also think the mistake made in analysis of the Johnson government is that people keep thinking they must either be evil geniuses or utter morons. I suspect they are neither. I suspect they are people of moderate intellect who just lack respect for voters and politicians. The thing about people of moderate intellect is they obviously do know what an ‘Australia’ deal means, and they obviously do know that real consequences in the UK would affect their position. Which is why I think they are talking to the base, not to Europe.

        In October Johnson was willing to agree a potential internal customs border inside the UK to avoid something close to an ‘Australia’ deal.

        All this nonsense is obviously dangerous, and they certainly may have something else in mind than full Norway but I’m sceptical it is Australia. Last time around bluster followed by capitulation allowed Johnson to claim to have proven everyone wrong. I’m not sure I see a different strategy today.

  9. Hi David – as usual, you are very alert to the real issues.
    The UK has been misleading itself and its people for a long time. Brexit is just another episode, but the Brexit rot really set in when MPs voted for Article 50 – what exactly were they voting for? They still do not know.
    The one point where my take is different from yours, however, is when you wish the UK well, because as a British citizen you are concerned; very understandable and laudable. But as a EU citizen, who could not vote in the EU referendum because I do not have the right passport, and who now has to apply for ‘settled status’ for the right to live with my family in the home I have been in for 27 years, after 43 years in Scotland, and having paid taxes throughout my career, I wish them hell. I have to prove to the Home Office Secretary, Priti Patel, a daughter of immigrants to boot, that I exist and have the right to remain: ‘They’ should prove to me I have no right to stay – ‘innocent until proven guilty’? Apparently not.
    To say that I am angry is an understatement. The most galling part is when ‘people’ tell me, ‘but you’re married to a Scot’ (I have been so for 37 years!). They have no idea that if you are a foreigner in this country, your personal life, contributions etc. etc. count for nothing – British immigration laws trump everything. The only way round it is to become British. No thanks – I am European, and do not define myself by the colour of my passport; any passport.
    On a separate note – I do wonder if Brexiteers have examined the mottos on the front cover of their passports. If they have, do they understand them? I doubt it very much.

    1. I share your anger though I’m not in the same circumstances. Every move the UK government, often endorsed by the so called opposition, makes confirms my view that no leaver has the first idea what they are doing. I will continue to refer to them as leavers as a remainer, it’s the only label I recognise.

    2. I understand, and I hope my expression of goodwill for the negotiations was not a jolt for you in your (justified) anger

  10. These are very good points. Might it be possible for The UK In A Changing Europe to publish a suggested equivalent to the Commission’s document? In the absence of anything substantive from the Government this might at least help to shape the debate and give Parliament something to bite on

  11. The document sets out what the Council will allow the Commision to negotiate. Given that this is now a “third party” oriented process (see also explicit references to standard provisions the EU uses in other agreements) there is little discretionary space for the actual negotiators. Easiest would be for the UK to let Barnier draft the rtelevants documents, submit them formally to relevant UK bodies, and sign. Of course there will be some baroque adornments in order to satisfy domestic sensitivities. No more Parliament (but possibly intra-Tory conflict) involvement and probably two seemingly tense periods: Mid-term, when possible extensions of the transition period must be applied for and granted (a good test case for UK government resolve). Hence no need to publicly lay down the UK’s own negotiating objectives. The Government can do whatever it wants. In contrast, the Commission would have to go back to the Council to adjust its mandate if needed. Given that the latter is highly unlikely, whatever the UK wants to achieve is within the EU’s guidelines. The alternative is “no deal” (and this time in earnest).

    Of course the final weeks of 2020 will probably show some public activity, when the Council may be tempted to grant a few favors in order to make things more digestible for the UK public, without having to antagonize far more important EU interest groups. I guess that the UK government wants to have as much cake as possible and also realizes that the first innings was lost and that the pitch is not improving..

  12. Yesterday, John Crace, the political sketch writer for the Guardian, was barred from Johnson’s speech. The sketch writer for the Times wasn’t.

    Also yesterday, political journalists attended No 10 for a briefing about Brexit. Those apparently deemed acceptable were going to be allowed in; others weren’t. All the journalists walked out in protest.

    Ministers aren’t allowed on the BBC Today programme.

    What sort of media manipulation is this? Where is the government heading?

  13. It seems Johnson and Co are incapable of learning from their mistakes.

    Scarcely a surprise but ….still. However useless they might be they can still be even more useless.

    They are in an echo chamber with the right-wing press, they have suborned the BBC (although not content with that they wish to make it even more fully their mouthpiece), but that doesn’t change the reality.

    Oh for an Opposition.

    Presumably after all their bluster and foot stamping they will cave again. But… they are so hopeless and incompetent, I do fear that they could stumble us into an even bigger mess.

  14. The British PM does not have any published detailed negotiating plan so that he can claim that the deal he will claim to reached is the best deal and better than anyone else could have negotiated.
    Shades of the current US President methinks.

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