Months ago writes Arnold Pindar, I was told that the discussions on Brexit withdrawal would go right up to the wire and then agreement would be achieved between the EU 27 and the UK.
Having negotiated in Europe since 1977 this did not feel right to me. As a Department of Trade and Industry (now BEIS) civil servant, working at times almost weekly in Europe, negotiations have always developed from drafts of the planned Directive or Regulation, usually but not exclusively proposed by the European Commission. Although there were key issues of substance, the vast majority of the negotiations were at the detailed level. Hence, my unease how things would turn out.
However, I do remember when privatising a DTI information service where I, as the manager of the service was concerned about the details, my boss insisted that we deal only with the principles until we had a commitment from the company that was to take on the work. He was right. Once we had agreement in principle, I was able to negotiate all the details to ensure that the service had the best chance of survival in the private sector.
Big Decisions First
Hence, I am coming around to the conclusion that it is essential to take the big decisions on Brexit before arguing the details. But my concerns are twofold:
- Firstly, are we able to achieve a satisfactory top-level Brexit agreement that will maximise benefits and minimise losses?
- Secondly, is it possible to handle the myriad of details without serious omissions and errors in a timely fashion as we leave the EU?
Understanding Cultural and Legal Differences
In negotiating internationally, it is necessary to understand the cultural and legal differences between our nation states. In the United Kingdom we look for compromise that as far as possible meets the needs of all interests. Taking the Germanic nations as an example, their culture looks on compromise as “fudge”. When you negotiate with Germany you need good data. If your data is superior to that supplied from the German side, they are more willing to accept your position than to come to a compromise agreement that has elements of both sets of data. Other European cultures then simply add to the complexity of negotiations from their cultural perspectives. (I am not qualified to comment on the added issues arising from the different legal structures in the nation states.) Therefore, there are immediate difficulties for these top-level negotiations between the 28 member states of the European Union.
Within the UK we have politicians and indeed the population as a whole holding very different views on a successful way forward on Brexit. Even at the top level, the issues are so highly technical and complex that decisions of principle are exceedingly difficult. This has resulted in huge difficulties for us to achieve the compromise solutions we normally favour to put forward to the EU27. So the danger of ‘no deal’ is a very real threat.
Which? has just published a report Brexit no deal: A consumer catastrophe? I fully support their conclusion that:
“…a no deal situation would have severe consequences for consumers, even if comprehensive contingency planning could be achieved in time.”
I also support the Which? four tests which are essential for consumers in any exit deal. viz:
Which? four tests for a successful Brexit for consumers are whether it:
- Limits the potential for price rises and increases in the cost of living.
- Maintains or enhances the current high safety standards.
- Maintains or enhances consumer choice of a high-quality range of products and services.
- Supports consumers with a system that ensures their rights and access to redress.
It is, therefore, essential that the UK achieves a Brexit agreement. But will it be a UK understood compromise or a fudge? Whilst we define things differently to the Germanic nations, we in the UK do not like ‘fudge’ by our definition. For us the word represents an unsuccessful compromise where no one can live with the proposed solution. This appears to be where we are with the Chequers proposals. And yet to reach agreement in Brussels we are going to need to compromise further and potentially further fudge our position.
Mechanisms for Future Engagement
The second of Which?’s four tests highlights one specific point of detail resulting from the UK decision to leave the EU. Considerable trade will continue between the UK and the EU post Brexit and hence, businesses will need to meet EU laws and regulations to trade there. It makes no sense for safety regulations to diverge between the EU and the UK in the future. This results in non-tariff barriers to trade and additional costs for consumers. To maintain some influence on future safety and trade legislation it is essential that businesses maintain membership of EU trade bodies and that consumers maintain membership of EU consumer bodies including ANEC, the European Consumer Voice in Standardisation, where we have opportunities to influence related consumer law. As ANEC is fully funded from the public purse, the UK cannot continue in membership unless a mechanism for future engagement is agreed. My attempts to address this point with UK Government have resulted in silence or more recently a bland statement that our membership would be a good thing!
So are we looking at a situation where we have to negotiate a detailed set of regulations but no longer have the access to the institutions or processes necessary to negotiate the outcomes that consumers and industry need?