Brexit vote: a case of scant EU goodwill

'The Brits have made such a hash of the negotiations and they have made so many errors and also behaved so badly over the years,' a leading commentator tells a Victoria University of Wellington audience.

UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s unsuccessful attempts to renegotiate aspects of the country’s Brexit agreement for leaving the European Union (EU), in order to win over MPs ahead of tonight’s critical House of Commons vote on the deal, received little sympathy from a leading EU commentator speaking at Victoria University of Wellington.

Dr Fraser Cameron is a former senior official at the European Commission who is now Director of the EU-Asia Centre and a Senior Adviser at the European Policy Centre, both in Brussels, and an Adjunct Professor at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin.

In a talk co-hosted by the EU Centres Network of New Zealand and Victoria University of Wellington’s Political Science and International Relations Programme and Centre for Strategic Studies, Cameron told a packed room: “The Brits have made such a hash of the negotiations and they have made so many errors and also behaved so badly over the years. In the past six months, we’ve had the concept of them comparing the EU to the Soviet Union. Imagine how that went down in Brussels. And I won’t bore you with all the things [former Foreign Secretary] Boris Johnson said before that. So there is not a great fund of goodwill in Brussels or any of the EU member states towards the UK.”

A major sticking point for May in securing Parliamentary backing for the Brexit withdrawal agreement she reached with the EU in November has been over the ‘backstop’, or safety net, device it includes to avoid a hard border between EU member state Ireland and Northern Ireland which is part of the UK.

“There is a deal that has been negotiated over the past two years and Britain signed off on it and said it was fine. The backstop was a British idea. So then to turn around after several weeks and say sorry, we actually don’t like the deal we signed. Can we go back and reopen it?” said Cameron. 

“And of course this would be to the detriment of Ireland. The fundamental point is Ireland is a member state. Britain is on its way out. The EU is not, I repeat not, going to sell Ireland out. Something the Brits completely failed to understand from the very beginning.

“They thought they could simply go to Berlin and Angela [Merkel, German Chancellor] would unlock a deal for them. It’s not going to happen.”

Brexit is “a classic lose-lose situation”, said Cameron. “It’s bad for the EU losing an important member state, but it’s much worse for Britain in terms of how cold it is going to be out there.”

A lot of people, including in the media, think that once there is a deal that will be it, he said. “That is not it.”

Brexit-related negotiations will be “an incredibly difficult, demanding waste of time frankly for many, many years to come” and “of course they will have implications for all third countries, including New Zealand”, said Cameron.

He pointed to the difficulties the UK has faced securing new trade agreements outside the EU.

“Liam Fox, the international trade secretary, said oh, within two years we’ll have 40 trade agreements,” said Cameron. So far it has completed seven – with Switzerland, Chile, Mauritius, Madagascar, Zimbabwe, the Faroe Islands and the Seychelles.

“They are finding it pretty difficult. Who’s making it difficult for them? Japan number one. The United States number two. The idea you can roll over these agreements is simply not true, because why should a country that negotiated a deal with 500 million people [throughout the EU] give a country of 60 million the same deal? It just doesn’t happen in real life. Trade negotiations are tough, believe me. Even though you’ve now got a New Zealander in charge of British negotiations, it’s not going to make it any easier.”

Of Japan’s position, Cameron said: “One of the most astonishing things about Brexit is that within two weeks of that decision the Japanese government sent a really stinging memo to the Brits saying you asked us to come in and invest in Britain, we’ve done this with Honda and Nissan, etc, etc, and now you’re threatening we cannot have access to the single market. That’s a broken promise. And the Japanese don’t like broken promises.”

He said British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt recently “sent a letter to the Japanese saying we’re your really good friends, we’re leaving in a couple of months and we still haven’t got a trade deal, you’ve got to hurry up and give us a deal. And again this went down like a lead balloon in Tokyo. They were saying who are these guys?”

EU negotiations with New Zealand for a free trade agreement are going somewhat better, said Cameron.

“You talk to people at the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the European Commission – they are confident a deal is possible by the end of the year. Both sides are aiming for that [even if it isn’t ‘signed, sealed and delivered’ until later]. When Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was in Brussels in January, she met with [European Commission President] Jean-Claude Juncker and other Commissioners and they had a really friendly conversation, [they were] really likeminded people talking to one another”.

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