How we once laughed at Eurocrats and the boring dull Eurospeak of their documents. But now, no written-in-Brussels document will be as parsed, construed, interpreted and re-interpreted with such care as the one setting out the rules for Britain’s departure from the European Union.
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, each as proud and sovereign as the United Kingdom, in the driving seat.
Britain, under 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.
The EU negotiating mandate is full of language British Government officials have not heard since the days of US President Eisenhower berating 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, meaning 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 as 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 in 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) that 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 in the continent than ever in its history. British political influence in the EU is close to zero.
The running order of negotiations May must now obey – the UK is bound by treaty legal duty to follow EU policy until it leaves – 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, 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 while 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 there but the British embassy reckon there are probably up to one million Brits with a home or business or who have retired to Spain. Who will list all of these and will the NHS keep sending £250m a year to Andalusia and Valencia to pay for the medical care of British wrinklies?
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, the EU27 in their negotiating document state that “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, London will be expected to abide by EU rules and laws, accept the European Court of Justice (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 the EU yet still de facto members, 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, 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 got what it has wanted since joining the Union 30 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,” the document says, which means Spain now wields veto power over Gibraltar – something which the Foreign Office has always resisted. It is a 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. Theresa 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 painstakingly 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)
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