The Government Mustn’t be Afraid to Walk Away from Brexit Trade Negotiations
What a difference a year makes. Last week saw a definitive change in the Brexit negotiations mood music with the UK’s chief negotiator David Frost and his team playing hardball on fishing rights. The shift in dynamic comes less than a year after Oli Robbins and Theresa May’s desperate toing and froing trips to Brussels, yet it would now seem the UK has the upper hand having gone from a position of weakness; to a partner of equals; to a position of strength.
How strange to Brussels and now how probable that sources last night were said to be shocked at the uncompromising stance of British negotiators. Indeed this shift was perhaps so unfathomable to Mr Barnier that he is now suggesting that the UK are deliberately trying to slow down talks in an effort that no agreement be reached. How else could it be that UK negotiators weren’t folding to EU demands? What other possible explanation? In stark contrast to Mr Barnier‘s accusations, Downing Street simply affirmed the lack of progress was a result of the EU’s failure to drop it’s demand for unchanged fishing rights and changes to state aid. In any event the disparity between Mr Barnier’s fraught accusations and the UK’s measured rationale speaks further to a shift in the balance of power.
What remains to be seen, however, is whether the Government are for real or just playing hardball only to cave at the last. Their and the UK media’s previous insistence on getting the Withdrawl Agreement deal across the line rubbed off on the establishment, electorate and the markets to such an extent that any alternative became unthinkable. As much as the messaging and supposed Whitehall preparations portrayed a willingness to walk away entirely, whether the UK would have done so without significant changes to the backstop is unknowable. It was certainly the case that not achieving a deal would have been damaging to the Government. The question is: how far the Government will go this time?
Negotiations are thought to be a success when there is an agreement and a failure if there isn’t simply on the basis that two parties met and tried to get one. Nowhere more so is this the case than when played out on a global stage in front of global audiences. Nevertheless, the Government mustn’t feel compelled to strike a deal for want of good PR. As any lawyer will attest, when the other party’s terms are unreasonable, negotiations become a success if an agreement isn’t reached. A true failure would have been never to have got round the table. In this respect the Government will have succeeded if it doesn’t reach an agreement on the EU’s terms on fisheries and state aid; so unreasonable are they — and as not seen in any trade agreements between the EU and other jurisdictions— they would as much defeat the purpose of gaining sovereignty after Brexit.
The challenge then might not so much be in walking away as it would be in managing the optics and the messaging around doing so. If no agreement is reached it will be crucial that the Government is able to set out why and with clarity and confidence. They will need to be robust and straight forward in their explanation of how it is better for the UK to fail to agree terms with the EU and maintain advantages, than to agree for agreeing sake and lose them.
In this respect the Government would be required not simply to stand up to Brussels but to stand up to public perception and media pressure. Dominic Cummings and the Tory Communications machine would have to be at their best to do so. Spinning a failure to reach a trade agreement with your largest trading partner on your doorstep is no easy task. Nevertheless doing so would show leadership and an appreciation for what is needed to get Britain back on track as much as it would serve to enhance the prospects of the British people and so the Government itself long after the transition period is over.