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:
8) May wanted to work through the Brexit talks in monthly, 4-day blocks; all confidential until the end of the process.
— Jeremy Cliffe (@JeremyCliffe) April 30, 2017
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.
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:
STRICTLY EMBARGOED UNTIL 00.01 SUNDAY 20 AUGUST
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:
UK STEPS UP PRESSURE ON EU WITH NEW BATCH OF POSITION PAPERS
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.
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