Brexit and daft embargoes

20th August 2017

To appreciate the sheer ridiculousness of yesterday’s “strict” press embargo of the Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU) you need to know a little about the background to the current Brexit negotiations.

Transparency of the negotiations

The exit negotiations are between the UK and the European Commission, which is representing the EU.

On 19th June 2017, the first formal day of the negotiations, both sides agreed the terms of reference.  This is a joint document,  Click here to see it hosted on the DeXEU website.

The terms of reference document is short but significant, and it is worth the the time to read in full.

In it you will see that it is envisaged that negotiation texts be circulated in advance of each round of negotiations (paragraph 6) and that the default for the negotiations will be transparency (paragraph 11).

This joint stance on circulating texts and transparency is in contrast to the earlier reported comments of the prime minister Theresa May at that infamous Downing Street dinner:

May had wanted complete confidentiality for the live negotiations.  She was told this was not possible.  What this means is that as late as April it seems the UK were not intending to publish any meaningful documents during the negotiations.

Position papers

The European Commission (and later the UK) met the dual requirements that negotiations texts be circulated and there be transparency by the publication of “position papers”.

Click here for the three web pages (so far) of published Brexit negotiation documents from the EU Commission.

You will see several position papers, the first being on the financial settlement published back on 29th May 2017.  You will also see there has been a steady supply of other position papers since.

The European Commission publishes these position papers without much fanfare.  Publishing them on their website serves the purpose of everyone in the EU27 remaining states, the EU institutions and in the UK seeing the position papers at the same time.

Some of the position papers are on the big topics of the financial settlement and citizens’ rights (the first two to be published).  Others are on mundane (though still necessary) topics.

As positions develop then a fresh position paper is provided.  In this way everyone can keep track of the EU’s intial and evolving positions on each aspect of the negotiation. The substance of the EU’s positions is kept in plain sight.

Now look at the UK’s approach, click here.

Until last week there had only been five.  Now there are six.  There still is not one on the financial settlement (the European Commission has published two).

You will see the UK has also (somewhat optimistically) published a paper on the future partnership with the EU – even though those negotiations will not begin until the EU is satisfied there is “sufficient progress” on the exit issues.  You will note this paper was not published as a position paper but is alone under another heading.

One UK position paper is only four pages big, including one blank page.  It almost looks like it was published just so the UK could be seen to have published a position paper.

Over time, you should (ideally) be able to see the parties heading towards agreement on each issue by watching the position papers evolve.

The provision of position papers is therefore straight-forward and expected.  It is what the UK has agreed to do, and has to do, for the Brexit negotiations to work at all.  The position papers are important, but they are not special.

The DExEU “strict embargo”

Yesterday (a Saturday), the DExEU press office sent out an email with the eye-catching heading:



Not just an embargo, but a “strict” one.

This must be important.

And it was an embargo of midnight at the weekend.  This means that the press release is for the benefit and convenience of the Sunday press.

There is nothing inherently wrong with embargoes, and they sometimes serve a useful purpose (for example, when there is a detailed report to be published and reporters need time to read into the background, or when a NGO wants to ensure wide coverage for an item by ensuring key information is provided on equal terms to a number of outlets).

So what warranted this “strict” embargo at the weekend, designed to maximise coverage in the Sunday papers?

The rest of the email was as follows:


A fresh wave of papers outlining the UK’s negotiating strategy on key issues related to Brexit and Britain’s future relationship with the EU will be unveiled this week.

With the UK stepping up pressure on the European Commission to move talks to the future partnership, two formal position papers will be published on the continuity in the availability of goods on the market, and confidentiality of documents.

The goods paper will see the UK will press the Commission to widen the narrow scope it has placed on the availability of goods on the market, via its own paper on this issue.

The UK is calling for services associated with goods to be included in withdrawal discussions as well, believing that this is the only way to protect consumers and businesses that trade before Britain leaves the bloc.

Services are essential for production of goods, for their sale, distribution and delivery, and for their operation and repair.

One example is that some engine manufacturers allow customers to pay a fixed charge per hour of operation, with the company looking after all maintenance and repairs. And with lifts, manufacturers are responsible for their installation and servicing.

In the EU, services inputs in products accounted for around 40 per cent of the added value in manufacturing exports in 2011, demonstrating the importance of minimising uncertainty for services as well as goods sectors.

Last year services made up 80% of the total UK Gross Value Added (GVA), and 74% of the EU’s GVA — underlining how important it is to discuss services early on in the negotiations.

The UK will also set out its position this week on ensuring that official documents and information exchanged between the UK government and the EU and other member states are protected.

In a busy week ahead, there will be further papers on; future civil judicial cooperation; proposed mechanisms for enforcement and dispute resolution once the European Court of Justice no longer has direct jurisdiction in the UK; and data protection.

This latest cluster of papers come a week before the next formal negotiating round, which will be led by Brexit Secretary David Davis who said:

“This week we set out more detail of the future relationship we want with the European Union, putting forward imaginative and creative solutions to build a deep and special partnership with our closest neighbours and allies.

“In the coming days we will demonstrate our thinking even further, with five new papers – all part of our work to drive the talks forward, and make sure we can show beyond doubt that we have made sufficient progress on withdrawal issues by October so that we can move on to discuss our future relationship.”

On the sequencing of talks, David Davis added:

“With the clock ticking, it wouldn’t be in either of our interests to run aspects of the negotiations twice.”


The mention of “stepping up pressure” is laughable: the position papers to be published are expected and straight-forward.  They have to be provided before each round, else the negotiations cannot meaningfully carry on.  There would be nothing to talk about.

And in view of the failure so far of the UK to match the output of the EU in providing position papers, this was not to “step up” pressure but to relieve pressure.  It is the UK catching up.

But the announcement was not even of the position papers. It was an announcement about an announcement.  The “strict” embargo was of nothing other than a trailing of something fully expected but yet to come.  It was not a news story.

There was no good reason for this to be subject to an embargo, let alone a “strict” one.

The “notes to editors” did not mention these were just yet more position papers in an agreed process, joining many other position papers.

The intention therefore appears solely to be to mislead the time-poor weekend news media into providing “stepping up pressure” headlines and coverage.

Back in November 2016 I contended (at the FT) that, in reality, the UK government was not seeking to negotiate about Brexit with the EU, but with the UK media and its own backbenchers.  The UK seems to want more to convince its domestic audience not the EU.

But like Percival at Singapore, the UK government is pointing things in the wrong direction.

The UK government seems not to be able to grasp that the true negotiation is with the EU and not the domestic media or its political supporters.

And while the EU were preparing all its position papers, the UK instead had a (needless) general election – bringing to a temporary halt any serious UK work on the UK’s negotiating positions.  The EU did their spade work while UK ministers were busy doing other things.

A serious and sensible approach to Brexit would mean that the UK government stopped its silly games of “strict embargoes” and midnight news releases, and without fuss just got on with the job of formulating and producing position papers for a collaborative negotiation with the EU.

Presenting what should be a business-like process as “stepping up pressure” indicates a fundamental misunderstanding and weakness in the UK position.  It is seeking media clamour to mask the lack of detailed work so far.

I happen not to be against Brexit in principle: but the UK government’s current approach is counter-productive, and it makes it unlikely that Brexit will go well, at least for the UK.

And “strict” embargoes over trivial announcements of yet-to-be published but expected routine position papers so as to spin a “stepping up pressure” narrative can only be described as pathetic.


For email alerts for my posts at Jack of Kent – including for Brexit updates – please submit your email address in the “Subscribe” box on this page.


header banner image

Regular blogging at Jack of Kent is supported by the kind sponsorship of Hammicks Legal Information Services. 


Comments are pre-moderated and will not be published if they are not polite or interesting/informative (and preferably both).  



17 thoughts on “Brexit and daft embargoes”

  1. The Government still clings to the Mail, Express and Telegraph and expects them to respond by amplifying their juvenile politicking. Witness the ludicrous May’s focus on Big Ben this week at a time when you’d think our PM had more pressing issues. Tory rule seems to be as much about diversionary symbolism as anything we’ve seen from South Korea. Where are the grown ups?

  2. I read two alarm bells in the email: 2nd paragraph, …”and confidentiality of documents” then the full 9th paragraph: “The UK will also set out its position this week on ensuring that official documents and information exchanged between the UK government and the EU and other member states are protected.”

    Transparency is a key aspect of the negotiations and while particularly sensitive data may need to be kept confidential there is the ability to ask for this in the negotiation terms. Indeed the House of Lords has offered the Reading Room option to the Minster. That said it is concerning that the UK may seek to gain a wider confidentiality arrangement under the radar and limit transparency to sound bites. A cautious and careful eye for detail will be needed.

  3. I’m afraid I have given up on Brexit. I did vote leave but I do have to throw my hands up and say I may just have been plain stupid.

    My stupidity has been amplified somewhat by the British government, which is in effect a non government and cannot control events.

    I raged against the wrong thing when I voted leave, but the underlying split in this country was already there before the referendum again now amplified.

    Lucky Dave truly opened Pandora’s box when he rolled the dice on this one.

    1. As a remain voter, I don’t blame _you_ for how you voted: it was not unreasonable to assume that the fact the public was given the choice meant that little or no harm would result from either outcome.

      If I blame anyone, it’s Cameron (if he didn’t believe it the outcome was harmful, I believe he would have invoked Article 50 like he said he would, therefore he did believe the outcome was harmful); and Boris (for the bus).

      But I don’t blame _you_, and I think more of us need to be seen to say that in public.

  4. British politics seems similar to American: a supportive press is available, especially now that online delivery insures that additional sources are available. As an American expat on the Continent, it seems that campaigns are run in both nations to organize the thinking of the faithful.
    On the American Conservative side we have Fox News & Wall Street Journal (both Murdoch properties), as well as the Drudge Report & openly neoNazi Breitbart News run by Mr Trump’s theoretician, Herr Bannon. Etc.
    It is unclear to me what PM May is doing with regard to the Brexit process, anymore than I comprehend what Mr Trump is up to. Yes, both are telling us of their existence. Yes, they are sending up trial balloons for FUTURE stages. But May is not dealing more specifically with retaining workers/adding new ones, nor that payoff nor the UK border with Ireland. Mr Trump is talking about trade negotiations starting, but the budget, increase of national debt limit, etc all are in limbo.

    1. There are some key differences. The separation of powers in the US, mid term congressional elections and fixed terms for presidents mean the potential damage done by a president will be far less than that possible by a UK Prime minister.

      1. Indeed, Dave, as this makes me as an expat American a bit more secure in dealing with the Trump disaster. You Brits have all your eggs in one basket, it seems to me. May your Parliament be aware that its decision in the next year or two will effect your nation’s well-being for perhaps ten years to come. I have been doing global trade for 40+ years, both as an academic & business consultant. Ten years is what a number of us old fogies estimate it will take to rebalance your economic ship in this time of both the EU & Asia rising.
        My personal irony here is that I teach engineers at the Master’s level in Germany, mostly Indians & Chinese. We get them to the degree & then help them find jobs locally. After a couple of years most expect to go home, carrying the German certification to their new employer. Here we obviously accept local multiculturalism, but of the working kind.

    2. “It is unclear to me what PM May is doing with regard to the Brexit process. anymore than I comprehend what Mr Trump is up to”

      I think the simple answer is that there is no plan at all.

      Consider this article that suggests that we’re wasting our time trying to analyse the Commander-In-Creep – – That that there’s nothing there, and so analysis attempts would automatically fail. Then compare that to our host’s own blogpost of UK Brexit failure as a “cunning plan” – – Tongue in cheek, yes, but the point is quite real; Nobody can actually believe UK Government is bollixing things up to the extent that they are.

  5. Really interesting and informative. The impression one gets, and I hear this privately from friends within the CS, is that one side, the one that was “called to the table” is organised prepared, open and meticulous, while the other, the initiating entity, is cobbling together what they can need upon vague instructions revolving around a ‘UK Wish List’?

  6. Pingback: Worldtruth
  7. Ships passing in the night. Only 5 of the 9 EU papers have UK equivalents (significantly missing are the items on financial settlement and police cooperation).

    Of the 9 UK papers, 4 are about things the EU has not thought to comment on – Northern Ireland and Ireland, privileges and immunities, confidentiality of documents and proposed mechanisms for enforcement and dispute resolution once the European Court of Justice no longer has direct jurisdiction in the UK.

    The last is something that the EU would probably not raise, so even its inclusion in the agenda will be controversial.

    The elephants in the room are the financial settlement and Ireland which are both highly charged but on which there has not yet been an exchange. (one side has stated its position in each case).

    No wonder the UK is begging for more time.

  8. To add to what I wrote before. Since there is no exchange yet on the financial settlement and Ireland, it looks like we can assume that if the agreed procedure is followed, these topics will not be up for discussion at the 28 August session which leaves them for the 18th September session at the earliest (getting rather close to October)

  9. This is all really interesting. Thanks Jack. Depressing, though. How can we stop this madness? A (possibly only small) majority of MPs on all sides knows Brexit’s madness. A big majority in the Lords knows it’s madness. It should be simple to call a halt. But we are boxed in by a hostile press, ignorance (how many understand a non-tariff barrier?) and heightened xenophobia. Is it just possible that May (“brexit=brexit”) is more intelligent than she appears and has a cunning plan? Once Davies Fox et al have got deeper deeper deeper and more obviously into the mire will she sack them and try to reverse the process? Phase 1 of this plan went off the rails of when she failed to win a nice majority in the snap election. But what choice did she then have but to stick it out and hope to bring her plan to fruition some other way?

  10. The government’s position seems to be. “I know we agreed to the sequencing, but we can’t figure out anything until we know what the future relationship is like.”

    It is perhaps, the least unreasonable thing they have said.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *