As the instigator and main protagonist of Brexit, the UK is in a fundamentally different position from other countries. Given the UK took the decision to leave the European Union, a clear vision for recasting relations with the powerful bloc of nations on its doorstep might have been expected. More than a year since the UK referendum, this is still not in evidence.
From one point of view, Brexit is the logical end-point of an awkward partnership, or a four-decade ‘aberration’ in UK foreign policy. But, although this way of looking at the UK’s decision has some attractions, it overlooks the key role that the country has played in shaping the EU. It also imputes a clarity of vision to the UK that has been conspicuous by its absence.
How the UK should position itself in relation to ‘Europe’ has, of course, been a perennial concern, though rarely the most important salient in party competition. But since the 1992 Maastricht Treaty the EU has become totemic, even if opinion polls revealed the public to be largely indifferent to the EU.
The referendum was contested by two broad coalitions of activists. In a largely fact free campaign, neither side presented a detailed vision of what the UK’s relationship with the EU should look like in the future. The fracturing of both coalitions immediately after Leave’s victory exposed the absence of any clear sense of what should come next. The Leave campaign had been especially heterogeneous, including soft and hard Brexiteers, little Englanders and internationalists, free marketeers and Lexiteers.
The campaign and its result also revealed weaknesses in political leadership and brought to the surface many hidden tensions. Although the consensus view within the two main parties – certainly among Conservatives, and almost as widely in Labour – was that the UK must and would leave the EU. But there was little agreement on how quickly, on what basis, and on the UK’s ultimate destination.
Despite her proclamation that ‘Brexit means Brexit’ when presenting her candidacy for the Conservative Party leadership, Theresa May did not follow up with a detailed blueprint when she became PM.
In this vacuum, leading Leavers May brought into her government – Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, Secretary of State for leaving the EU, David Davis, and Secretary of State for International Trade, Liam Fox – continued to repeat claims made during the referendum campaign: that negotiations with the EU would be swiftly concluded; the UK’s bargaining power would be greater, because the EU depended more on the UK than the UK on the EU; and other countries, particularly the US and members of the Commonwealth, would queue up to sign new trade agreements with the UK.
Towards the triggering of article 50
Under pressure to set out her plans from Brexiteers in her own party, UKIP, and the eurosceptic press, May reiterated her promise that the UK would leave the EU and that she would make no effort to keep Britain in the UK by the backdoor. Her first specific pledge in August 2016 – that free movement would be brought to an end – left many major questions unaddressed.
Over the summer months, comments by senior figures in the government revealed major differences at the heart of government on key issues, such as whether the UK should remain in the single market or stay in the customs union, and whether there should be a transition period.
Despite its decision to start the clock on a fixed-term two-year period of negotiation, the government still did not present further detail. The PM’s landmark Lancaster House speech on 17 January 2017, which set out her government’s 12 priorities for Brexit, put control of migration at its centre. May made clear that, since bringing an end to the free movement of people was a priority, the UK would leave the single market. It would also leave the customs union, though would aim to become an ‘associate member’ in order to make trade as ‘frictionless as possible’.
In addition, the UK would seek to define ‘a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious free trade agreement’ with the EU. Ending the jurisdiction of the Court of Justice was a further red line. Also, although the UK was not prepared to ‘contribute huge sums to the EU budget’, it would continue to pay towards specific programmes where participation would benefit the UK. Finally, the PM issued a strong warning to her EU partners. ‘While I am sure a positive agreement can be reached’, she noted, ‘I am equally clear that no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain’.
Since Article 50
Although the Lancaster House speech fleshed out a UK position in advance of the Article 50 negotiations, it revealed the ‘muddled thinking’ that persisted in the administration. The White Paper of March 2017 attempted to pull these elements together, but did little more than identify areas for negotiation.
As slogans in a referendum campaign, many of the aims have a strong populist appeal. But as negotiating objectives, they are deeply problematic. Some are, such as the desire to avoiding creating a hard border with Ireland, are not logistically possible; others would be hard to sell domestically, which has been the case with UK payments to the EU budget; or the UK has put forward proposals that would maintain the advantages and benefits of EU membership without the accompanying obligations, as with its proposed scheme to continue frictionless trade. In other words, to have its cake and eat it.
Beyond these specific difficulties, wider frustrations have grown among the UK’s negotiating partners.
First, there is uncertainty: more than a year after the referendum, the UK’s position on what exactly it wants from the negotiations remains obscure, even after the PM’s eagerly anticipated speech in Florence.
Second, the UK has consistently overstated its influence. Constant repetition of the mantra that ‘they depend on us more than we on them’ does little to suggest that domestic opinion has been prepared for compromise when trade patterns make it obvious that the damage to the UK would be greater.
Third, the UK has appeared to ignore the approach to the negotiations set out by the EU. The UK has had to be constantly reminded of the guiding principles agreed by the European Council in June 2016: that the EU would negotiate as a single entity, the terms of withdrawal would have to be agreed before discussion of a future trading relationship could begin, and rights would have to be balanced by obligations.
Finally, inconsistencies in approach, contradictory statements by ministers, and undiplomatic language have caused bewilderment and offence in European capitals. Goodwill has been profoundly eroded by the UK’s treatment of EU citizens, and the UK’s credibility has been undermined by revelations of past Home Office failures and suppressed reports. Taken together with the thinness of its negotiating briefs, the UK has suffered significant reputational damage.
At a political level, opinion among ministers and MPs is fragmented. Until the general election, May was the dominant figure. The inclusive result severely diminished her authority, and the government now relies on the Democratic Unionists for its parliamentary majority. Labour’s incoherence on Brexit policy has prevented it from providing an effective opposition.
Although key legislation is in its early stages and it has given its support to the government so far, Parliament may prove to be a significant obstacle. In the Commons, majorities opposing hard Brexit may coalesce on specific issues. Whether the House of Lords is prepared to risk the constitutional crisis that voting down the government might precipitate remains to be seen.
At the administrative level, May’s decision to replace the traditional machinery for handling UK-EU policy with new structures has been costly. The Department for Exiting the EU (DExEU) has taken the formal lead in negotiations, coordinating other government ministries and overseeing relations with the UK Permanent Representation.
As well as finding itself caught up in the inevitable turf-wars with the Foreign Office and the Department of International Trade, DExEU has been criticized for its refusal to accept external input, as well as its lack of expertise and the slow recruitment of staff. It has also lost key personnel.
The creation of DExEU also disrupted the efficiency of the traditional machinery. Historically, the two key figures had been the UK’s ambassador to the EU, who kept London informed about developments and the positions of governments in Brussels, and the head of the European and Global Issues Secretariat in the Cabinet Office, who was the main domestic contact point for EU institutions.
The interposition of a third body has been problematic, although Olly Robins recent move from DExEU to the Cabinet Office suggests some lessons have been learned. The strengthening of the Cabinet Office should simplify lines of communication and restore the centrality of the Prime Minister to the system.
At one level, everything in the UK is now about Brexit. There is no area of public policy that will not escape significant changes post membership. The balance of competences between the four home nations will be recalibrated. Moreover, the Great Repeal Bill opens the door to a substantial increase in executive power vis-à-vis Parliament. No political party or politician can avoid the issue.