How should Britain approach the farewell negotiations with the rest of the EU? David Davis indirectly confirmed that the Government has yet to reach an agreed line when he told Hillary Benn in Parliament on 14 December that the Government’s plan would only be published when it was ready.
On the one hand it is refreshing that the Government is no longer pretending that its silence is based on the principle that loose lips sink Brexits. On the other, it is unnerving that – nearly six months since the referendum and over four months after the formation of a new Government – the country still must set a course on the single most important negotiation to confront the country in decades.
Meanwhile, the Government’s strategy has been set by default. One of the dark amusements of the last year has been the mismatch between Leavers’ image of themselves and the image that the outside world has of them. Leavers saw themselves like Captain Onedin, majestically standing on the prow surveying the horizons of the open seas, independent, adventurous and enterprising. Meanwhile, the outside world saw posters implying that Turkey was joining the EU and Nigel Farage smugly standing in front of the Breaking Point poster, exactly echoing Nazi propaganda about Jewish immigrants, as pictured above.
If the new Government was to establish a constructive working relationship with the rest of the EU, it needed to distance itself from the insular and xenophobic image that the Leave campaign had broadcast internationally. It has not tried. The outside world has seen the Home Secretary propose naming and shaming companies for employing EU nationals, the Prime Minister deride citizens of the world as citizens of nowhere and the Foreign Secretary tell the Italian economics minister that the Italians won’t want to give up British prosecco sales. The Government has wrapped itself in red, white and blue Brexit.
These messages aren’t just heard domestically. Those in the EU outside the UK who were hoping that Britain would remain a constructive and outward-looking partner are rapidly giving up and planning accordingly. It is now probably too late for Britain to seek to negotiate with the rest of the EU with a view to establishing a warm, if more limited, relationship. The deal that will be struck now will be strictly transactional. The EU will be doing Britain no favours in the interest of long term amity because it will perceive it as too early to do so while the Government is still wrapping itself in the flag.
Some Leavers will regard this as an essential rupture with the past. Some will regard this as inevitable. Some will regard this as the rest of the EU being unreasonable in its dealings with Britain. But it is a consequence borne of a strategy that the Government has stumbled into in the absence of having a strategy. By continuing the rhetoric of the Leave campaign without considering the consequences to buy time to draw up a working strategy, the chances of leaving the EU in an orderly manner that minimises the pain to the average member of the public are now low.