Theresa May’s Article 50 letter gives us new reasons to be cheerful about Britain’s future

Andreas Whittam Smith
Michel Barnier, the lead negotiator for the EU: Getty

The exit talks between Britain and the European Union are going to commence with a bitter row about timing. That much is clear from the letter that starts the process of Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union. The lead negotiator for the EU, Michel Barnier, has stated that “orderly withdrawal comes first”. Not once, but four times, Theresa May disagrees. Nothing else in her letter receives the same emphasis.

Describing the new partnership that is sought, May says: “We therefore believe it is necessary to agree the terms of our future partnership alongside those of our withdrawal from the European Union”. The next occasion she describes this as “necessary” is when she describes the need for both economic and security cooperation. And then, referring to the difficult financial problem – how we determine a fair settlement of the UK’s rights and obligations – it crops up again. Finally, in discussing the tight two-year timetable, the phrase, wording still unchanged, gets it fourth outing: “But we believe it is necessary to agree the terms of our future partnership alongside those of our withdrawal from the EU.”

In other words, what the Brexit negotiators are seeking to avoid at all costs is being cast in the role of supplicant, of being told that the UK must settle its bills first and then, and only then, the EU might graciously agree to grant some of our wishes, such as a free trade agreement.

The same point comes up again in relation to the rights of British citizens living elsewhere in the European Union and EU citizens living in the UK.

Barnier has been eloquent about this problem. “First and foremost,” he wrote recently, “we must protect the rights of the 4.5 million citizens who have found themselves faced with an uncertain future in the place they call home. The 27 member states and the European Commission will work tirelessly to preserve the rights of European citizens across our continent. We are ready to discuss this issue from day one.”

Notice the emotional language here – “the place they call home”, the member states resolving to “work tirelessly”. Now compare that with May’s dry tone. In adumbrating the rule that we should “always put our citizens first”, she adds merely that “there are, for example, many citizens of the remaining member states living in the United Kingdom, and UK citizens living elsewhere in the European Union, and we should aim to strike an early agreement about their rights”.

This confirms what has appeared to be the case all along: in May’s mind, the rights of expat citizens are a bargaining chip to be played, or withheld, as the occasion demands.

Now I am not without sympathy for May’s approach. This is a desperately serious negotiation. The hardball player will, indeed, do best. Barnier appears very anxious about EU citizens’ rights when living elsewhere in the EU; we Brits, therefore, shouldn’t rush until we understand what we would get back in return for a quick resolution.

An even more important rule of successful negotiating is to have a Plan B available for use if the talks go badly. May has been clear about this since the beginning. She has always said that if the divorce talks break down, she is prepared to walk away. Some months ago she said that, while she was sure that a positive agreement could be reached, “I am equally clear that no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain”.

This is not much of a Plan B. Yesterday, three former business secretaries – Michael Heseltine, Peter Mandelson and Vince Cable – told The Independent that leaving with no arrangement in place would be disastrous for British firms and jobs. But in negotiations, a poor Plan B is better than having no alternative. At least you can show nerve.

Funnily enough, Barnier has been eloquent about the disadvantages for Britain of crashing out of the EU. He said recently that there would be severe disruption of air transport, long queues at Dover and the suspension of nuclear material to Britain. Interestingly, he evidently doesn’t want us to do that.

Yet May’s letter calmly raises the prospect: “If, however, we leave the European Union without an agreement the default position is that we would have to trade on World Trade Organisation terms.” Then she mentions the disadvantage for the EU: “In security terms a failure to reach agreement would mean our cooperation in the fight against crime and terrorism would be weakened. In this kind of scenario, both the United Kingdom and the European Union would of course cope with the change, but it is not the outcome that either side should seek.”

Putting all this together, do I feel more confident about Brexit negotiations than I did before the Article 50 letter was published? Yes, I do.

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