On 5 September, in the House of Commons, the Minister for Brexit, David Davis, failed to define what Brexit means, other than Britain’s leaving the European Union. But maybe that is not surprising. For as the former Head of the Foreign Office, Sir Simon Fraser, told a packed gathering of the Association of European Journalists (AEJ) UK Section at Westminster that lunchtime, it would be foolish to speculate in detail what the outcome will be. As the then Prime Minister David Cameron warned in the run-up to June’s EU Referendum, Brexit is a leap in the dark. But Sir Simon was in no doubt that no Brexit deal can be as good as the situation Britain enjoys by being a member of the European Union. That is not just for economic reasons, he argued; Britain’s influence in the world is enhanced by being part of the EU.
Simon said that the new rules of the game for the British government are as follows: (1) the result of the referendum has to be accepted at face value, (2) it has to try to make Brexit work, (3) there needs to be a plan for what Brexit is, how it will happen, and when. But, he warned, “we are on a long journey to an unknown destination.” Although Theresa May appointed the triumvirate of Boris Johnson, David Davis and Liam Fox to oversee Brexit, Simon believes the Prime Minister would be unwise to cede the power of negotiation to anyone else. There will be a Cabinet Committee, chaired by Mrs May. The Ministry for Brexit should rather become a sort of Secretariat for coordination. As he saw it, there will be two clear stages in the negotiations between the UK and the other 27 member states: (1) around Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, on how to unravel the UK from EU treaties, (2) around article 218, establishing a new relationship between Britain and the EU. In the meantime, the priority should be not deciding when Article 50 will be triggered but rather on formulating a proper strategy.
The government has begun consultations with business (many of whose leaders are alarmed by the prospect of Brexit, not least in the City), but Simon said it should reach out to other interest groups too. Meanwhile, the UK will probably seek to have a sui generis relationship with the EU, as none of the models being talked about (e.g. Norway, Switzerland) fits, though Britain can learn from studying them. “Brexiteers think Brexit is all about Britain,” Simon warned, “but in many ways the EU dimension is more complex. 27 states have to agree a negotiating position. And the European Parliament has to ratify the package they come up with.” The European Commission’s Brexit task force, under Michel Barnier, is only being set up on 1 October.
Unfortunately, “the UK ran out of negotiating goodwill on freedom of movement,” Simon said. “There is no single EU member that is sympathetic to what the UK is doing. For the past 20 years, political leadership in this country has been sub-standard, so will need to have a strong civil service involved — and more civil servants will be needed to cope with the massively complex issues around new trade deals. But I do not think there is any conceivable deal that would be better economically that what we have as a member of the EU.”
In that case, I would argue, when the details of the deal are available (2019 at the earliest?) should not Parliament — or indeed the British electorate — have the opportunity to say whether they still want Brexit to go ahead?