The Brexit scene in the UK is likely to be dominated in the coming weeks by the consequences of and the follow up to the Supreme Court’s ruling on the need for parliamentary approval of the triggering of Article 50. But it would be exceptionally unwise if the government were to neglect the importance of putting this waiting period to good use in their dealings with our future negotiating partners. Having finally given them something to chew over in the prime minister’s Lancaster House speech, not all of it by any means positive, there is plenty that could be done to improve the chances of success when the negotiations actually start.

The first thing is to stop brandishing not entirely credible threats about alternative economic models for Britain in the event of failure; and to stop insulting EU leaders, as the Foreign Secretary recently did in his rather puerile remarks directed towards President Francois Hollande. Our EU partners all have professional and intelligent ambassadors in London who are well qualified to tell them about the chances and risks of failure; and they can work out for themselves the possible downside consequences for their own interests. Public threats only raise the temperature and reduce the chances of their backing the sort of compromises we will need if we are to emerge with a good outcome to these negotiations.

In Brussels-based negotiations procedural choices are often as important as substantive ones. The issue of whether the two sets of negotiations – one over the divorce, the other over the new external relationship between the UK and the EU – are to be concurrent or consecutive (as the Commission wishes) is one such. Explaining quietly and without fanfare in the other EU capitals why concurrent negotiations would be in our mutual interest and why consecutive negotiations would sharply reduce the chances of a successful outcome should be a high priority. It is hardly rocket science to calculate that the divorce negotiations will be adversarial and will cause a lot of anger in the UK, with no counterbalancing benefits, while the new relationship negotiations present a real opportunity to strike mutually beneficial deals.

And it is that matter of mutual benefit that is still being seriously under- emphasised, most recently in the Lancaster House speech. That speech helpfully indicated a desire for continued close cooperation on matters of justice and home affairs – combatting terrorism, cyber crime, human and drug trafficking and so on – and on foreign policy and security issues; but it was singularly unspecific on how this might be done and it failed to spell out the political narrative of mutual benefit which would justify it. So would it not be valuable if the foreign secretary and the home secretary were to set out in public speeches the positive case for continuing to work together? And the same is true of scientific cooperation and innovation. Doing this would underline the opportunities for all concerned in these otherwise rather dispiriting Brexit negotiations.

Since sporting metaphors are much loved in Britain this is surely the time for a bit of pitch rolling. Simply leaving the many ambiguities of the Lancaster House speech to be pored over in other EU capitals is hardly likely to be conducive of a good result.

by David Hannay | 23.01.2017

Edited by Hugo Dixon

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