Britain's Government Can't Negotiate With Itself, Let Alone the EU

 /  Feb. 6, 2018, 9:41 a.m.


Theresa May wants to build a “Global Britain,” but the only thing going global at the moment is her government’s reputation for incompetency. Right now, for Britain to emerge from the EU bloc into the open embrace of the world is a pipe dream.

Achieving a consensus on the nature of Britain’s transition by March seemed feasible earlier this year, but since then, fighting within the Conservative Party and even May’s own cabinet has elevated it to a far-fetched hope. It was thought by both UK and EU negotiators that by March, ministers in the government would have decided what Britain would seek from trade talks.

Negotiating with the EU was supposed to be the tricky part of the transition, yet government squabbling and internal party factions mean the government might fall face-first at the first hurdle. Conservative Member of Parliament Jacob Rees-Mogg recently lamented that Britain would become a “vassal state” during the Brexit transition period if it were temporarily obligated to follow EU regulations without any influence. Rees-Mogg is the leader of the European Research Group—a highly influential group of Eurosceptic backbench Conservative MPs who campaign for a hardline stance against Brussels—so his objections carry significant weight in Parliament and the Conservative Party.

The government has since sought the power to examine new regulations made by the EU during the transition period, and David Davis, the minister in charge of overseeing Brexit, said he wanted a “right to object” to new EU laws. But this proposal was slapped down by the EU negotiators who are keen for Britain to roll over and follow EU rules during the transition. Seeking to move on, it is unlikely that the government will actively object to this demand. Nor should it. If Brexit is as good as Eurosceptics make it out to be, then accepting these temporary conditions seems reasonable in order to secure a better deal that ends in Britain flourishing outside the EU.

The rift between Europhiles and Eurosceptics within the Conservative Party is not new. However, the chancellor, Philip Hammond, recently undermined the government’s—and particularly May’s—position when he opined Brexit should only mean “very modest” changes to Britain’s relationship with the EU.

The Europhiles in the party fear that holding off negotiations will catapult Britain out of the EU in 2019 with no plan on how to land on its own feet. Eurosceptics, however, fear May’s ineptitude means Brexit will forever remain in the distant future.

This week, May was flown out to China to spread the message of a “global Britain.” What she left behind, however, was a government and party divided and unable to initiate negotiations. Her failure to unite her own cabinet betrays extraordinary incompetency.

The government’s inability to initiate trade talks and agree with itself sends a deafening signal to governments around the world who will inevitably be approached by Britain ahead of its exit from the EU bloc. To them, Britain will look like a petty negotiator, belittled by constant infighting, whose preferred bargaining position is quagmire. That’s not an image Britain can afford to project right now or for the next few decades.

Britain wasted a year grumbling over the Brexit divorce bill only to roll over and accept the majority of the EU’s negotiating positions. The government doesn’t have time to put its head in the sand again. Eurosceptics need to realise Britain will not become a “vassalage” if it needs to obey EU regulations for two years before leaving.

Equally vital, however, is May’s leadership: she needs to take greater command over dissenting voices within her own government. Though Hammond’s position is both valid and useful (why rip everything up and start from scratch when you could just tweak what you already have?), it is May’s fault that he was able to speak freely and undermine the cabinet’s collective responsibility.

If the government truly wants Britain to thrive outside the EU, it needs to realize the incessant commentary from backbenchers and the internal undermining of its position are turn-offs for any foreign government thinking about greeting Britain at the negotiating table. If the cabinet can’t adopt a single unified negotiating position, Brexit will truly become disastrous.

The image featured in this article is used under the Creative Commons license. The original can be found here.

Carl Sacklen


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