22 November 2016

The missed opportunities that led to Brexit


Notwithstanding certain desperate rearguard actions, Brexit is now inevitable. But what many people miss is that there were at least two opportunities to change that.

In a recent article, former Conservative Europe spokesman Mark Francois explored some of the background to the Lisbon Treaty, and how its handling in Parliament started us down the road that would lead to the referendum less than a decade later.

I would go much further. The Lisbon Treaty was in fact the one of the final opportunities to generate a kind of European Union that the UK could live inside.

Lisbon was the end product of a tortuous negotiation that began with the Convention on the Future of Europe. Yet what it delivered was completely different from what had originally been intended.

It is difficult to recall now, but the heads of government met in December 2001 at Laeken, just north of Brussels, to get their heads around why the EU kept being rejected whenever its output was put to a popular vote. And the conclusions they reached were much more open-minded than the EU integrationists would have liked.

Laeken described the Union as “behaving too bureaucratically”. It said “the Union must be brought closer to its citizens”. It wanted the system to have “more transparency and efficiency”, suggested “the division of competences be made more transparent” and commented that “if we are to have greater transparency, simplification is essential.”

Laeken called for the “European institutions to be less unwieldy and rigid”. It did not demand further deepening by the Brussels power players, but instead “stressed the need to examine their role in European integration”. In other words, these instructions pointed as much to a withdrawal of power and competences from Brussels as to anything else.

Mandates, though, are what you make of them. Since an overwhelming majority of delegates to the subsequent Convention were in favour of further integration, that is precisely what delegates delivered.

The Commission, which had been looking at surrendering powers, quickly got the measure of the situation, and within a week had quietly shredded its initial plans to restore competences back to national capitals.

Thus the end result was “more Europe”, and the principle of “ever closer union” was affirmed. The federalist convoy rolled on – breaking through the roadblocks of dissent by Poland and outright rejection of the proposals by the French and Dutch public, to push on through the perimeters of common sense.

Indeed, it is no coincidence that the Labour figure most closely associated with the Lisbon discussions, Gisela Stuart, became such a prominent advocate of leaving the EU in their wake.

After Lisbon, it was clear that multilateral EU reform was impossible: the only hope of fixing Britain’s relationship with the EU was bilaterally, through a unique deal that wrote the UK out of many of the treaties.

But there is an intriguing suggestion that there may have been one last chance to fix things, one last missed opportunity within the head sheds of Brussels. Did David Cameron come tantalisingly close to wrenching a massive concession from the EU?

As insiders start to reveal glimpses of the renegotiation process, it has become apparent that there was a critical clash from the outset between the Downing Street advisers who hoped for wide-ranging changes, and the civil servants who refused to accept that any such outcome was achievable. The latter lobby won – a judgment call which went on to damn Cameron’s deal and doom the referendum.

But had a gutsier approach been taken, what might it have entailed?

Jean-Claude Piris is an absolute unknown in the UK. Yet Piris is to the EU’s legal service what Quincy was to the California coroner’s office: highly respected analytically, his opinion counts and his contacts excel.

Writing for a study published by the European Parliament, while the negotiations were yet ongoing, Piris gave the following as one scenario that had been mooted for the talks:

Thus, the EU should accept to confer on the UK a special status, allowing it to remain a “partial” EU member, participating in the internal market, without being obliged to participate in other major EU policies (agriculture, fisheries, Structural Funds, social policy, justice and security, immigration, foreign policy, etc…).

Then he continues:

Actually, this was the first idea of the British Government, when it believed that the eurozone would push to open a procedure to change the EU Treaties in order to strengthen the constitutional basis of the eurozone.

If that is indeed true, the initial British plan involved an overhaul of the UK’s relationship with the EU so revolutionary that it would have taken the country outside the EU, in a form of radically modified Norwegian model that even removed the free movement of people.

The boldness of the proposition is all the more striking given the disparaging comments about Oslo’s status that later emerged from Downing Street in the referendum debate.

And it would perhaps explain the indicators from about a year and a half ago, suggesting the FCO was intending to sell a form of “associated status” for the UK: this was a development that was worrying some Eurosceptic campaigners, who were unsure (given the void of accurate reporting) that such a transition would be more than cosmetic. But it appears, if accurate, that it would have been.

Had it been carried through, Cameron would have won the referendum, and would have stayed as Prime Minister.

But it didn’t happen. Reading the tea leaves, there were two problems. First, certain Whitehall figures baulked. Leaving the EU by evolutionary progression was too radical a policy departure for a Foreign Office boxed into the Heathite ambition to be at the heart of Europe – and a Cabinet Office with key posts occupied by Brussels alumni.

The second problem – and the reason why Downing Street ultimately backed down from this genuinely substantive approach to renegotiation – is that Brussels wouldn’t have it.

Piris himself argued, in his evaluation, that this scenario “has no chance of success at all” – not least because it would trigger a scramble for similar associate status among other states. That comment, though, needs to be caveated in that by the time of writing, Cameron had already ditched the nuclear option that would have made it an attractive alternative to a very real prospect of Brexit: the sedimentary metamorphoses under pressure.

Yet perhaps Piris did have a point, in that in many ways, even bilateral change was getting extremely hard to achieve from within the modern EU. Even if, say, Angela Merkel had bought into this idea, the changes that had happened between the treaties of Amsterdam and Lisbon also made such any such deal institutionally and politically impossible to ratify across and within the EU.

There was therefore absolutely no chance of what Britain needed: a relatively quick political fix that could be marketed back home with vociferous continental support. In that regard, any prospect of meaningful renegotiation, and with it Cameron’s career, may in practice have been killed by Tony Blair through a legacy landmine.

But the real significance of this chapter in Britain’s renegotiation – still murkily understood – is not so much that it failed, but what happened next.

Having been blocked from its ambitious vision of a proper renegotiation, HMG turned instead to a scorched earth approach. The complete buy-in across Government for an ephemeral, cosmetic renegotiation led to a blanket denunciation of more ambitious alternatives.

The consequence of that was spelled out with astonishing frankness by the House of Commons Select Committee after the vote:

The previous Government’s considered view not to instruct key Departments including the FCO to plan for the possibility that the electorate would vote to leave the EU amounted to gross negligence. It has exacerbated post-referendum uncertainty both within the UK and amongst key international partners, and made the task now facing the new Government substantially more difficult.

In the end, though, neither institutional reform across the EU, nor bilateral changes between the UK and rest of the EU, happened. First, the way the ever closer union had been placed on a pedestal blotted out any chance of pragmatism; then pragmatism itself and the pursuit of easy wins prevented the government pursuing any new blueprint that might win greater popular support.

Neither is the fault of Eurosceptics: both merely proved the truth behind their predictions and warnings.

Other EU peoples will now explore the extent to which they can support ever closer union in their own time, and through their own processes.

As for ourselves, Whitehall’s many able minds will now be working to recalibrate the core basics on where our interests truly lie – hopefully they will find some of the answers in my series of e-books published by BrexitCentral, the first one out now.

In the meantime, understanding more fully why we have set out on the path of Brexit may help make the route less bitter for those treading it against their will.

Dr Lee Rotherham (@DrBrexit) was an advisor to three Shadow Foreign Secretaries, and CoS to the Conservative Delegate to the Convention on the Future of Europe. He was Director of Special Projects at Vote Leave.