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When the negotiations fail
25 Sep, 2018

What will Theresa May say?

Brexiters will blame Brussels. So we need to campaign in a way that shows that Brussels is not being unreasonable or punishing us. London4Europe Committee member and former HM Treasury senior civil servant Michael Romberg writes.

At the end of the negotiations there will be at least three key agreements. The Withdrawal Agreement will settle the terms of the divorce, including money, EU/UK citizen's rights and - crucially - the Irish border. The Transition Agreement will set out arrangements for the next couple of years. And a political declaration will set out in high level the Framework of Future Relations. While the first two will be detailed legal documents, the Future Framework will be More in the nature of a communique whose level of detail is as yet uncertain. We have to hope that it is definite enough to allow the electorate to make an informed choice. 

We can be pretty confident that Theresa May will not secure a trade deal that obtains the exact same benefits as we have through our membership of the single market and the Customs Union.

What will she say when the results are clear?

I doubt that she will apologise for misleading the public with wholly unrealistic forecasts of where the negotiations would end up and point to her own incompetence as a negotiator as the cause.

She might just big up the result. Our new trading relationship is “almost as good as”. We have a “deep and broad deal”.

The hard Brexiters will blame the EU

Or she might just blame the EU for their intransigence, appeal to the Dunkirk spirit, and call on all good patriots to tighten their belts and prepare to despatch the enemy. We all know how effective calls to nationalism are at blinding people.

That is pretty certainly going to be the Hard Brexiters’ line. Indeed, they are already blaming the EU.

The Evening Standard’s cartoon gave an amusing response to Liam Fox’s attempt to get his retaliation in first.

Where Leavers are coming from

We should be clear. The Brexiters’ line will resonate with much of the public. Katy Adler, BBC Europe Editor: “The one question I’m asked pretty much more than any other when it comes to Brexit is ‘is the EU punishing the UK for wanting to leave?’.

Part of that is the natural human reaction to not getting something that had been promised, that people thought was theirs by right. We do not like to think: “I was only trying it on” or “my request was unreasonable”.

Where the EU is coming from

The two core issues for the EU that underpin their unwillingness to offer what the Brexiters expect:

  • the linkage of the four freedoms: movement of people, capital, goods and services; and
  • the need to be part of trust-building measures like the acceptance of European Court of Justice jurisdiction and subscription to the European Charter of Fundamental Rights in order to benefit from schemes that require high levels of trust, like the European Arrest Warrant.

In both cases, the EU’s attitude is underpinned by the purpose of the EU as a peace project that is designed to stops wars and conflict between member states. Freedom of movement is not primarily about getting workers to jobs – though it does do that; it is primarily a tool to bring nations closer together at the personal level to help make war unthinkable.

Implications for campaigning

We should campaign to make it less likely that people will see a bad Brexit deal as being the fault of Brussels (and hence another reason for leaving) rather than inherent in the nature of Brexit.

Don’t make it worse

Whenever we emphasise the economic benefits of the single market without also calling for freedom of movement or when we present freedom of movement as a cost to be paid we play into the hand of those who see the EU as a trade area with ideas above its station.

We should not say that the EU are going to cut us a deal by offering reform or an emergency brake on freedom of movement, or whatever. They have shown no sign of it so far, so even if you think it’s coming you should wait until it has actually come. Because every time you call for that it confirms a Leaver’s belief that the EU should offer a deal. And so when the EU does not make an offer that just shows that it is their fault.

Explain the EU

We should explain that the EU is a peace project, not a free trade association. That we always knew that was the case. That peace really matters. That prosperity is important but less important than peace, so prosperity is primarily a means to an end. And that is why the EU insists on freedom of movement being linked to economic freedoms.

I am under no delusion that these higher ideals play well in the UK. But how else will we counter an appeal to nationalism?

Glory in freedom of movement

We must not be shame-faced about freedom of movement or see it as a price to pay. We should declare it to be a great advantage for us as individuals, for the UK and for the EU.

Even for those who do not expect to use it, it is something to have in reserve: auf Wiedersehen, Pet was about British workers finding jobs in Germany.

Explain the benefits of pooled sovereignty, why a political union is just what we need

Pollution knows no borders and fish swim across lines drawn on maritime maps. If we co-operate with other countries we get more of what we want – environmental and worker protection, animal welfare – without worrying about being undercut.

Gently challenge Brexiters’ claims

We have to be careful here. We need to make sure that we do not say “I was clever enough to see through this nonsense – you weren’t”. Even criticising Leave Leaders’ desire to have their cake and eat it is dangerous, because it should have been obvious to everyone that that would not work. How about:

Brexit campaigners saw the EU as a trade association. On the Continent the EU is seen as a peace project. Brexiters underestimated the sincerity with which the EU27 see the EU as a political project. They will not compromise political integrity for an economic gain.

Since the EU referendum it is not only the UK that has been rebuffed in its attempt to get the EU to break the linkage between the four freedoms. Switzerland also tried and failed.


If voters think that the EU is to blame for a poor deal they will vote Leave. So we need to lay the groundwork in our campaigning for people to understand that Brexit is inherently a poor deal. That means focussing on the political purpose of the EU: peace, democracy, individual freedom. We need to be careful to make our case in a way that does not offend Leave voters.



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