How we laughed at Eurocrats and the boring dull Eurospeak of their documents. But now no written-in-Brussels document will be as construed, parsed, interpreted and re-interpreted with such care as the one setting out the rules for Britain’s departure from Europe.
Prime Minister Theresa May with her Trump-style signing ceremony of her Article 50 letter in Downing Street has had the last flashy moment in the Brexit saga. Today, it is 27 other nation states in Europe, each as proud and sovereign as the United Kingdom, in the driving seat.
Britain, under Mrs May, has become a rule-taker, not a rule-maker. The Brexit blowhards can huff and they can puff but they will not blow down the house Europe has made.
Throughout the EU negotiating mandate is language British government officials have not heard since the days of US President Eisenhower berating the British prime minister, Anthony Eden, over his folly at Suez in 1956.
For the first time in the EU’s history the metaphor “cherry-picking” appears as in Britain cannot play with the EU’s indivisible four freedoms.
For centuries “perfidious Albion” was the master of divide and rule diplomacy. The EU is determined to confound such knavish tricks insisting the negotiations “will be conducted as a single package” and “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.”
The EU 27 will have “unified positions” and there will be “no separate negotiations between individual Member States and the UK on matters pertaining to the withdrawal of the UK from the Union.” So there is no point Boris, or Liam or any Brexit minister going to Warsaw, or Romania to try and win support for Britain’s Brexit demands.
The sight of assorted Royals on a so-called “Charm Offensive” in corners of Europe will be seen as the folklore it is – more Ruritania than serious diplomacy.
This week all the centre-right parties in the European People’s Party (EPP) who control most governments and top EU posts are holding their annual conference in Malta. There was a time when the Conservative Party and its MPs were major EPP players. But David Cameron and William Hague amputated the Tories from political Europe in 2009. Labour is more marginal than ever in its history so British political influence in the EU is close to zero.
The running order of negotiations Mrs May must now obey – because until the UK leaves the EU it is bound by its treaty legal duty to follow EU policy – has not been changed since Michel Barnier first set it out some time ago.
First, the money, then the status of EU citizens in Britain and British citizens in Europe. Many people, including UKIP fellow travelers in the government insist they want all EU citizens to stay here. But at the same time, the Home Office is rejecting one in five of those who apply for permanent residence.
The 85 page form is a Home Office bureaucrat’s wet dream as anyone can stumble in filling in the mind-numbing details asked for and thus be rejected. In Berlin, the head of the Brexit department in the Foreign Ministry told me” “We have been asking London to supply a list of names of the EU citizens resident in the UK and they cannot.”
In Warsaw, Poland’s Europe Minister, says that the question of social security rights and payments is central and that is not an EU but a national competence. In Spain, there are 300,000 British expats officially registered as living in Spain but the British embassy reckon there are probably up to 1 million Brits who have a home or a business or have retired to Spain. Who will list all of these and will the NHS keep sending £250 million a year to Andalusia and Valencia to pay for the medical care of British wrinklies?
Mrs May has made much of her wish for “transitional arrangements” to be put in place between the formal political Brexit of withdrawing from the Treaty on 29 March 2019 and the final deal on trade and access to the EU market. In that period insists the EU27 in their negotiating document “this would require existing Union regulatory, budgetary, supervisory and enforcement instruments and structures to apply.’
Translated from Eurospeak it means that even after the UK has unsigned the Treaty and no longer elects MEPs (pause as we weep over UKIP’s demise) or sends a Commissioner and Ministers to shape EU rules and policy, the UK will be expected to abide by EU rules and laws, accept the ECJ which enforces these rules, and make the same contributions to the budget as today until the transition period is over.
So we will be out of Europe but still de facto members of the EU rather like Norway or Switzerland which accept the four freedoms and make major financial contributions to the EU.
There is a nod to the border issue in Northern Ireland but only on the basis of “respecting the integrity of the Union legal order” which en clair means the ECJ again. In contrast to her Lancaster House speech Mrs May seems to have dropped the idea of leaving the Customs Union. A UK outside the Customs Union would mean the end of intra-Ireland open trade and business.
Finally, Madrid has finally got what it has wanted since joining Europe thirty years ago. “No agreement between the EU and the United Kingdom may apply to the territory of Gibraltar without the agreement between the Kingdom of Spain and the United Kingdom” which means Spain now wields veto power over Gibraltar – something which the Foreign Office has always resisted. It is major diplomatic defeat for Britain.
There is other language in the EU negotiating mandate which is hard and uncompromising. One can only wish David Davis well. He campaigned for 13 years against the Labour government’s modest steps to be a sensible EU partner and player. He has won his plebiscite. Mrs May has signed her letter. But the language of the EU is clear and limpid. British anti-Europeans wanted to destroy what Europe’s nation-states have painfully created over decades. It is not going to happen and if Britain wants any access to Europe it will be on the EU’s terms not those of Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson.
Denis MacShane is the UK’s former Europe Minister and author of Brexit: How Britain Left Europe (IB Tauris)