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This week the debate over Brexit will reach another of its periodic crescendos with the hearings in the Supreme Court of the case for giving Parliament its say before Article 50 is triggered. This preoccupation with our domestic, national debate is understandable and, in any case, unavoidable.

But it contains two risks. The first is that we come to believe that we ourselves can determine the outcome of the Brexit negotiations which will begin in 2017; the second is that we pay little attention to developments taking place in the rest of the EU and across the Atlantic which will in fact have important implications for those negotiations and for their eventual outcome.

The rise of populist parties of the extreme right and the extreme left is a phenomenon with which we are all by now familiar and one of which we will hear a lot more in the years to come. Even if the string of national elections in 2017 passes off without any these populist parties entering government (and, following Matteo Renzi’s heavy defeat this past weekend in the Italian constitutional referendum and the narrow margin of the moderate candidate’s victory in Austria’s presidential elections, that is a pretty bold assumption to make), the governments and the EU institutions with whom we will be negotiating will be feeling embattled. For them the policies of UKIP and of the “Hard Brexit ” advocates in the Conservative party will all too closely resemble those being championed by their own, domestic opponents. That will not make them sympathetic to those policies, nor likely to concede in the new external relationship between the U.K and the EU points of principle which they believe to be fundamental to the viability of an EU whose continued existence remains central to their own security and prosperity.

In parallel to these distinctly unhelpful trends, the arrival in the White House of a US President whose stated views – on NATO, on climate change, on trade policy, on nuclear proliferation, on human rights – are deeply worrying to all European governments including our own, to use a truly British understatement. In the period of uncertainty which will necessarily now ensue until we find out whether those views are to be mitigated or turned into US policy, the capacity of  European governments to engage with the new administration in a robust but constructive dialogue will be at a premium. 

The role that the UK plays in that dialogue, as a country which has always had a leading role in NATO and every aspect of European security and which has been and remains a champion of a rules-based international community, will be of great importance for our future relationship with the EU. It could be either positive or negative.

And then there is that first risk, that we delude ourselves into thinking that our own Brexit choices will settle matters to our satisfaction, without any need for flexibility and difficult compromises. Of course in a negative sense that could be true. If we opt for some of the policy prescriptions being peddled by the erstwhile leaders of the Leave campaign, the consequences are all too predictable. That is the path to the cliff edge of which the Prime Minister has warned, with the real possibility of no agreement at all being reached either on the terms of withdrawal or of our future relationship with our closest neighbours, allies and principal trading partners. 

Would that be in our national interest ? Surely not. But we do need to have a serious discussion in parliament about those tough alternatives and about the government’s broad approach to them before we embark on the Brexit negotiations.

by David Hannay | 05.12.2016


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