An open letter to the leaders of the EU

I get it.  I really do.  We have been a difficult partner for the whole time we have been in the EU and its predecessors.  And after the Brexit referendum vote, you had to put up with Nigel Farage being his usual unpleasant self in the European Parliament.  You should know that many of us felt exactly the same as Mr Vytenis Andriukaitis whose facepalm went viral on social media (and we enjoyed his heartfelt blog as well).

So, I understand it when you demand that the UK get on and serve an Article 50 notice.  You want us to get on with it.  But I ask you to think again.

When I think of the Article 50 notice, I think of a scene in the Batman movie “The Dark Knight”. The Joker has rigged two ships full of explosives, one of hardened criminals and one of innocent civilians.  Each ship has a trigger to blow up the other one and save themselves.  The Tory leadership are like the boat of criminals – torn between a desire to trigger Article 50 to save their own skins and the consequences if they do.

One thing that I have heard a lot is that serving an Article 50 notice will reduce uncertainty.  That can’t be right.  If an Article 50 notice is served without a deal already being worked out in outline, uncertainty will massively increase because of the risk of a “Hard Brexit” in two years’ time.

The British Prime Minister is now Theresa May.  You may be confused why negotiations will be led by a Remain supporter.  This is because the three “stars” of the Leave campaign proved themselves incapable.  First, Michael Gove killed off the challenge of Boris Johnson by saying he was not up to the job.  The effect of this act of treachery was to kill off his own campaign.  Finally, the sole remaining Leave candidate, Andrew Leadsom’s candidacy blew up after embellishing her CV and insulting childless people.  The failure of the Leave campaign to have a credible candidate for Prime Minister tells you everything you need to know about the dishonesty and incoherence of their campaign.

Theresa May has made it clear that she would much rather have pre-negotiations before triggering Article 50.  Even the new minister for Brexit wants consultations (although not with you).  But consulting with Scotland, Gibraltar and Northern Ireland will give him the firm message that they want to stay in the EU.

So, I ask you to forget about the Article 50 notice and instead have informal discussions with an open mind to see what can be salvaged of the relationship.  There is a major contradiction in the Leave case which needs time to become clear.  Lord Ashcroft’s detailed polling showed that the top reasons were (1) the principle that decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK and (2) control of migration. So, the EEA requirements of following EU legislation (but with no possibility of influencing it) and being required to accept EU migrants is anathema to them.  On the other hand, very recent polling from ComRes shows that a clear majority of voters want access to the single market prioritised over curbs on migration.  Squaring that circle is going to need some creative thinking not the binary process we could well have under Article 50.

* Mark Goodrich is a former vice-chair of Richmond & Twickenham Liberal Democrats, a former expat who saw Brexit unfold from the other side of the world and now lives in Sevenoaks, Kent

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21 Comments

  • Richard Underhill 15th Jul '16 - 9:03am

    “Nous sommes solidaire” as David Cameron said to Francois Hollande.
    ISBN 2-85036-088-0.

  • Heads of governments, foreign ministers and other leading national politicians are obviously free to talk with whoever they want to, though many will be reticent to engage with B Johnson. What is clearly a contradiction is to have official informal discussions. No one would want to find themselves put in a compromising position from such talks.

    I suppose Johnson could try to approach leaders of Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland etc to sound out what the UK could offer in recompense for restrictions of free movement for their people. It all seems rather implausible and no one, even the Hungarian PM would risk sticking their neck out to make offers that could become public and badly backfire.

    The bottom line is that each national parliament has to agree as well as the parliament of the EU. Beyond fact finding, which our leaders sorely need at the moment, informal discussions cannot achieve much. The first fact to discover is that the EU is more democratic than Brexiters imagine and that under the table wheeler dealing will not work.

  • Graham Evans 15th Jul '16 - 10:20am

    Angela Merkel is the key to the negotiations. (Hollande will soon be history, and although Merkel too faces elections she is almost certain to remain German Chancellor.) If May can agree an informal deal with Merkel all the rest will have to fall into line. May is therefore right to delay triggering Art 50. Besides if the British, having agreed a deal with Merkel, want to get their way they can block almost any significant proposal coming forward from the Commission on any subject, whatever its merit per se. Once Art 50 is triggered the Brits loose this power.

  • Peter Bancroft 15th Jul '16 - 11:53am

    My own sense is that the British political debate as a whole has completely misunderstood the politics around Article 50. Assertions like it being all about Merkel completely miss the point that the Central European states have more voting power and that the European Parliament will have a veto on any agreement.

    Article 50 was very deliberately designed by an open convention and it is how the European institutions intend to handle the UK’s exit. Voices across the channel from every country and every political country have been clear that Article 50 triggers negotiations and that the EEA will continue to feature the four freedoms. The broad consensus in the UK is that the EU and other nations are completely wrong about how the EU and other nations will act.

    Maybe the UK (well, England) is a plucky little nation that will run circles around continental politicians who don’t understand how this is going to pan out. If you look at the UK’s dismal track record in systematically failing to understand EU processes and getting embarrassingly defeated in the as a result (e.g. Cameron’s Juncker veto), that does not seem all that likely.

  • Our new Chancellor, Philip Hammond, has just been quoted as saying we will come out of the single market, but will negotiate access to it.

    That means no EEA or EFTA, which would have required free movement.

  • Michael Valkenberg 15th Jul '16 - 1:49pm

    What strikes me in this open letter, well as in pretty much every other British comment on the topic, is how incredibly self-centred and egotistical the discussion in your country is.

    As a German citizen I honestly wonder, why it seems to be so hard to take into account the question which motivations may drive treaty negotiations on the EU side. And those are not even hard to understand: While every country may have their own particular interests and weaknesses, they are all united in their wish to do what is best for the EU and its membership states. The U.K. a has made it clear that it no longer wishes to be included in this club, therefore the interests of the UK will only be considered insofar as they have a direct influence on the EU or a membership state.

    What does that mean? Well, if you say “Triggering Article 50 without a prearranged treaty in place will lead to chaos”, that is a good reason for the UK to press for early treaty negotiations. But the EU will only agree to this if its states feel that chaos in the. Would be to their disadvantage. And that is not necessarily the case – Frankfurt and Paris sure won’t mind to pick up those parts of the City which prefer political stability to low taxes.

    And there’s another important point: Whatever deal the UK gets in the end, will -by necessity – be worse than the current situation. Giving in on any of the EUs founding principles, or giving the UK a trade deal that is too close to the advantages of the common market, would encourage other countries to try their own version of the BRexit. And that would very clearly be against the interests of the EU.

    The UK has, based on a mixture of lies and racism, decided to leave on of the greatest undertakings in politics of all times. It would have been worse if it had been one of the countries that had actually been committed to the European idea, but as it is, it is bad enough that you should not expect any concessions by your former partners.

    You made your bed, now you’ll go down with it.

  • @ Michael Valkenberg “What strikes me in this open letter, well as in pretty much every other British comment on the topic, is how incredibly self-centred and egotistical the discussion in your country is.”

    Very helpful, NOT.

  • Mark Goodrich 15th Jul '16 - 3:53pm

    @Peter Bancroft – I agree that the position from the EU nations has been firm that Article 50 should be served and then negotiations. My open letter was an attempt to suggest that this wasn’t the best way forward for them either (in my view, it self-evidently isn’t for the UK which is why even Brexiteers are hesitating). Article 50 is a relatively recent innovation and Greenland negotiated its way out without using it. There is no rule that says it must be used and in my view, very good reasons on both sides for not using it.

  • Mark Goodrich 15th Jul '16 - 4:06pm

    @Michael Valkenberg – Well, it seems that you are not to be my first EU convert to the idea of not triggering Article 50! More seriously, I am disappointed with your comment because this was very much intended as an attempt to see it from the perspective of other EU leaders rather than from the UK’s perspective. I agree that too much of the commentary has focused on the UK’s view – hence the article above.

    Each of the EU leaders has slightly different drivers but I think there are some common ones:

    – no to “pick and choose”;
    – avoid anything which further damages the EU; and
    – avoid economic damage.

    It is, of course, right that there may be some countries seeing either opportunities to seize financial business or make the UK suffer from a hard Brexit (as the French might say “pour encourager les autres”). But I think that the hard economic realities and the interests of the EU favour either keeping the UK in the EU or under a Norway arrangement. As the contradictions in the Leave position become clearer, the chances of these will increase. Article 50 sets everyone on a dangerous path. The UK will likely suffer the most but it is not risk-free for the rest of the EU either.

  • Article 50 would reduce uncertainty – but only by replacing it with certain disaster.

  • Mark Goodrich 16th Jul '16 - 5:42am

    @ Richard Gadsen – I used to think like that! Originally, my thesis was that “reducing uncertainty” was nonsensical if the uncertainty was between a good thing and a bad thing and you reduced uncertainty by doing the bad thing. That was the lesson of the referendum vote. Markets didn’t like the uncertainty of the referendum but they liked the bad outcome event less!

    However, I have come to the view that Article 50 doesn’t reduce uncertainty because you don’t know what the outcome will be. It just increases the chances of lots of bad outcomes and reduces the chances of good ones as opposed to not serving one. Basically, the future is completely uncertain whichever way we go so we might as well go for the least bad outcome.

    @petermartin2001 – I agree to some extent but all the EU members have much wider interests as noted above. That’s why the Brexiteers constant harping on trade slightly misses the point. To that extent, I Michael Valkenberg has a point but I still think EU interests are overall much better served by discussions and an attempt to work out an amicable deal rather than the potential chaos that Article 50 unleashes.

  • Mark Goodrich 16th Jul '16 - 5:49am

    Incidentally, for lovers of Brexit developments, two very interesting straws in the wind yesterday.

    1. May meeting with Sturgeon and looking for a “UK solution”. If she is serious about that and the Union (which as a slightly old-fashioned Tory, I think she is), the only solution is the reverse Greenland plus federal UK. Won’t go down well with Brexiteers and would take forever to negotiate but there you are….If delivered, Scottish independence off the agenda for the immediate future because they have got 90% of what they want.

    2. Anna Soubry’s resignation tweets talked not about supporting the government but fighting for the “representing my constituents & long-standing views on the positive benefits of immigration and the EU.” Can’t see her voting for anything in Parliament which doesn’t deliver single market access and there will be others in the Tory ranks who think the same.

  • So, I’m curious — I haven’t lived in the UK since 1987 (I’ve visited and was born there, but that’s not the same, as Brexiters online never tire of telling me). I just wonder why are we still telling the EU all about what we want as we make ready to exit stage right? The negotiations will be difficult. They will be involved. I wanted remain, because the process /prospect of exiting alone appeared overwhelming, and the outcome extremely uncertain.

    I’m, now, left with this question. Do we really think we are more important than we are, as Brits, I mean? Online there are oddles of sites from expats with titles like ‘Battling for Britain’ etc. Dominated by folks who can’t understand why Scotland and NI wanted remain. Howls of protest about Nicola Sturgeon and ‘betrayal’. It reminds me of the Ulster Unionists before the Great War with radical Brexiters playing the role of Sir Edward Carson. I wonder how far such crazies represent ordinary Brits. Or has the expat experience warped their perspective.

    No, I think, the problem is parochialism rite large at home. I tell my US friends we’re – Britain, I mean – ‘a small island between Eire and Calais’. I refine that statement, now, by limiting those comments to ‘England’. It seems to me that Britain’s (England’s) problems with the EU are a reflection of the idea that in some way the UK is special, better, . . . etc.,

    The world is so interdependence — I understand France became the fifth largest economy in the immediate aftermath of Brexit, as we dropped to sixth. However, the Brit nationalists (and nationalists always want to force others to be part of their definition of nation) are ready to believe almost anything to sustain their illusions. If only more of us identifying ourselves with Britain (especially England) could see ourselves as others see us.

    The US economy appears to be recovering from the ‘shock’ of Brexit, and most Americans are now as concerned about it as they would be by the sudden discovery that Shakespeare did not write in iambic pentameter: ‘Oh, really . . . never mind’. Brexit is a significant event (embarked upon for the most fatuous of party political reasons — and our Lib. Dem. ministers didn’t make Cameron’s proposed referendum a basic for abandoning him in 2013 or 14?). It will not make Britain greater. It is a complication in world affairs . . . chiefly for the British!

  • Michael Valkenberg 16th Jul '16 - 5:09pm

    @petermartin2001

    Thanks for confirming my main point, that the discussion in the UK completely ignores the reality in other countries. Sure, losing trade with England and Wales would be bad for Germany. But Germany is not a business, and the UK is not a customer. A sweetheart deal for the UK would be deeply unpopular in Germany, where the European idea is central to every party (except for the extreme right). And even if you could convince Merkel to sacrifice her principles for some trade, she won’t do it because she is aware of something you seem to have forgotten: A deal that includes full access to the open market but limits free movement would be a slap in the face to countries like Poland. And they can veto any deal. So, sorry, that’s not going to happen.

    And:
    “In theory, if there is no settlement the UK could impose 10% tariffs on all German cars whereas the generally allowed tariff that would mainly apply to UK exports would be just 2% to 5% . So the UK will come out well ahead and could use the extra tariff revenue to more than compensate our exporters on any potential tariffs they would face.”

    That’s just patriotic fan fiction. Non of that makes any sense in the real world.

    @Mark Goodrich

    I would be perfectly happy with the UK not triggering Article 50. But that can only happen if the government officially declares that it will not trigger the article. For all practical purposes, the UK is already being treated as if the article had been triggered. You no longer have a meaningful role in discussions and decisions on a European level, you are no longer invited to scientific projects, highly qualified academics have started leaving the country! foreign companies have stopped their long-term investments in the UK. The damage from all that will accumulate over time, and it will be immense.

    If the government wants to avoid that, it has to declare publicly that there will be no BRexit. I don’t see that happening, do you?

  • Nom de Plume 16th Jul '16 - 6:55pm

    Yes, the continental view is not appreciated here. It is all rather insular and misinformed. There are two partners in a relationship and the EU is the bigger of the two. I rather wish that they would trigger Article 50 and get on with it. At least it will bring some clarity – of a sort. Perhaps the Tories would embrace John Redwood’s vision for the UK – here’s hoping.

  • Mark Goodrich 17th Jul '16 - 4:05pm

    @ Michael Valkenberg – I don’t disagree with much of what you say. As you say, the Government can’t possibly come out and say that it has abandoned Brexit. However, once reality hits in terms of what is possible, that is still a possibly outcome. It seems to me that the EU would do much better just to keep talking and watch the Tory government appetite for Brexit on unpleasant terms just wither away.

    Of course, we suffer a fair amount in the meantime from the things that you say but I can’t see that serving an Article 50 notification makes it better for anyone.

  • Simon Banks 18th Jul '16 - 8:51am

    Three small thoughts.

    (1): Yes, EU countries will want to trade with the UK, but long-term, the UK will be a less significant market than India, China, West Africa and probably Indonesia, Brazil and Russia. So sweetheart deals are unlikely to go beyond what could be offered to many other countries or blocs.

    (2): Brexit cannot, in my view, be reversed in the present Parliament. But a snap election with the Tories losing their majority (and no significant UKIP advance) would raise serious questions about pressing ahead with the decision. The main reason why that’s unlikely? Labour’s bout of self-destruction.

    (3): I agree with what Michael has said about the narrow nationalism of the EU debate in England and Wales. The Leave camp never seemed to produce a single argument for why Brexit would benefit the rest of the world and they even showed astonishing ignorance (or insouciance – a mixture of both) about Scotland and Northern Ireland. The Remain camp didn’t stress the wider issues enough.

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