Book review: Nine lessons in Brexit

Today we review a book that was published exactly one year ago: Nine Lessons in Brexit by Sir Ivan Rogers (Amazon).

As UK ambassador to the EU, Sir Ivan Rogers witnessed at first hand David Cameron’s attempt to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s membership. In December 2016 he was the target of attacks from Brexiteer politicians, after a leaked memo revealed his advice to then Prime Minister Theresa May that it could take up to ten years to negotiate all of the details of Britain’s post-Brexit relationship with Europe. The following month he resigned.

Since then he proved to be perhaps the most uncompromising and forensic critic of the British government’s approach to negotiating its new relationship with the EU. His ‘where are we now’ talks at universities have been reproduced as podcasts by one of our favourites, RTÉ’s Brexit Republic. But he also distilled his thinking into this concise book. So one year on, how have these nine lessons in Brexit stood the test of time? How will they relate to the next tortuous phase of negotiations between Britain and the EU? Let’s find out…

Lesson 1: It has to be that ‘Brexit means Brexit’.

What Theresa May really meant with this phrase, we may never know. But for Sir Ivan the point is that being a ‘third country’ just outside the EU single market is fundamentally different to being just inside it. EU member states are happy for goods, services and people to move freely between their territories because they know that everyone has signed up to the same system for enforcing the rules and adjudicating disputes. A third country like the UK, which could decide at any moment to apply a different set of standards, cannot enjoy the same benefits as a member state. That makes it inevitable that Brexit, sooner or later, will result in an upheaval for Britain’s economy – most likely when the current transition period ends on 31 December 2020.

Lesson 2: Other people have sovereignty too.

And that is something that UK politicians and journalists often seem to forget. The EU’s negotiating mandate, published this week and expected to be approved by heads of government, represents the combined national interests of the member states. And these matter, since it is national governments and parliaments that will approve any future deal with Britain in the final months of 2020, leaving little more than half the year to hammer out the details. In some cases, the links to domestic politics of the EU are obvious – Spain will decide on the applicability of any deal to Gibraltar for instance. But there are many other policy areas, fishing for example, that matter greatly to one or other country’s domestic politics and could, come December, make all the difference on whether any deal is ratified or not. The risk of ‘no deal’, albeit a different type of no deal than in 2019, is still with us.

Lesson 3: The EU is formidably good at using process against negotiating opponents.

Under this lesson Sir Ivan maps out a series of strategic errors by the British government following the EU referendum, while the EU meticulously planned the process to maximise its advantage. The results are plain to see in the 2019 Withdrawal Agreement – the EU secured all of its negotiating priorities on citizens’ rights, Ireland and Britain’s financial commitments. The next phase will once again be shaped by the limited time available, hard deadlines governing the end of the transition period and any decision to extend it, and the risk of falling into a ‘no deal’ scenario if the deal is not ratified. From the negotiating mandate we know already that the EU will insist on grouping all aspects of the future relationship under a single governance structure with measures to protect the level playing field, thereby ruling out side deals on crucial issues like aviation and ensuring that the UK cannot undercut its Single Market competitors.

Lesson 4: It is not possible or democratic to argue that only one Brexit destination is representative of the ‘Will of the People’.

A year ago Theresa May was still trying to convince Parliament that her plan for Brexit was what the people wanted. Meanwhile hardliners dismissed anything but the hardest exit as ‘Brexit in name only’. Sir Ivan explains this as the legacy of a Eurosceptic movement that knew what it opposed, but failed repeatedly to unite around a clear or pragmatic alternative to EU membership. And that meant that Remain campaigners like us felt ever more emboldened to question the legitimacy of the whole project. It is astonishing, after more than three years of debate, the extent to which Brexit still means all things to all people. What has changed one year on however, is that Boris Johnson’s government undeniably owns whatever outcome the UK ends up with at the end of 2020.

Lesson 5: If WTO terms or existing preferential EU deals are not good enough for the UK in major third-country markets, they can’t be good enough for trade with our largest market.

And here Sir Ivan highlights the problem that still lies at the centre of the British government’s position. Exiting the EU may be more or less a matter of trade and economics depending on your perspective. But to the extent it is about trade Britain – like all countries the world over – trades much more with its immediate neighbours than with other regions of the globe. So if free trade agreements matter at all, it is most important to have them with your nearest neighbours, meaning that threats to walk away or cut ties are not seen as credible.

Lesson 6: The huge problem for the UK is in services.

The lesson we take here is that whilst politicians and the media have debated relationships of high alignment (May) and low alignment (Johnson), these have all been about trade in goods. Much more important for the UK is the services sector, where its EU trade is greater than the sum of its next eight most important overseas markets combined. And here the British government’s determination not to compromise on the free movement of people means, effectively, accepting that barriers to commerce will re-emerge at the end of 2020 under all scenarios.

Lesson 7: Beware all supposed deals bearing ‘pluses’.

At the time of writing there was much talk of a ‘Canada plus’ deal or even a ‘triple plus’ deal, without ever being clear what advantages the pluses denoted or how they would be realised. The lesson here, which applies very much to the next phase of negotiation beginning in March 2020, is that the devil is in the detail. As a measure Sir Ivan elsewhere notes that the simpler free trade agreement between Europe and Canada runs to more than 500 pages of text and a couple of thousand pages of appendices!

Lessons 8 and 9: You cannot and should not want to conduct such a huge negotiation as untransparently as the UK has. Real honesty with the public is the best and only policy if we are to get to the other side of Brexit with a healthy democracy, a reasonably unified country and a strong economy.

These lessons are the culmination of Rogers’s book and, in our opinion, the reason why it remains the best and quickest read available for those wanting to get a handle on the dynamics of the next phase of negotiations between Britain and the EU.

One of the most decisive features of Brexit to date has been that the EU member states have remained united and have spoken with one voice. This is achieved by everyone signing up to a negotiating mandate at the start, which by its nature is in the public domain and can be scrutinised by the European and national parliaments. This is how the EU manages all negotiations with third countries and it means that changing the mandate takes time; the notion of last-minute deals between leaders at summit meetings does not hold true, and certainly not for Britain which no longer has a seat at the table and will negotiate with the Commission rather than national heads of government.

We agree with Ivan Rogers that transparency, including Parliament and the devolved administrations, would be in the best interests of a healthy and united UK. But is Westminster ready for the major shift in culture that implies? Let us know what you think in the comments. Have you read Nine Lessons in Brexit or have you perhaps been to one of Sir Ivan’s lectures?


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