Brexit Negotiators Have Messed Up. Time To Get Serious.

Glenn Houlihan
April 5, 2017

Within days of the UK government triggering the formal process of leaving the EU, Prime Minister Theresa May’s calm, confident rhetoric has been undermined by blunders and bravado. If her negotiators don't raise their game, Britons face the prospect of further gaffes and missteps.

Firstly, Cabinet ministers discussed using the UK's role in European security as a bargaining chip to secure better terms of trade after Brexit, according to leaked minutes from a meeting last month. Even contemplating that approach was short-sighted and untenable, given the recent surge in terror attacks on the continent and the looming threat of Russia in the Baltic states.

The talks riled both moderates and hardliners within the EU and soured relationships before the process of negotiation had even begun. It exposed a lack of clarity and composure among the UK's top politicians, not to mention a whiff of desperation. The argument that "they need us as much as we need them" is quickly wearing thin; when it's used to justify putting security on the table, it comes across as particularly one-dimensional.

Secondly, the omission of Gibraltar from the lengthy Article 50 letter - delivery of which started the timer on Britain's exit from the EU - could have been chalked up to a clerical oversight. But, coupled with Spain's threat that it might veto an independent Scotland's attempt to rejoin the EU, the slip-up regarding the overseas territory sparked an incendiary response as British politicians showed more interest in posturing than parlaying. 

Perhaps swept up by the rising tide of nationalist rhetoric in the US and Europe, former Conservative Party leader Michael Howard suggested May would be willing to wage war with Spain if it tried to assert sovereignty over Gibraltar, pointing to Britain's battle with Argentina over the Falkland Islands. 

Gibraltar's chief minister Fabian Picardo didn't help matters by describing EU President Donald Tusk as a “cuckolded husband” who is reacting to the UK's filing for divorce by “taking it out on the children”. Such insults may seem harmless and juvenile, but they set a troubling precedent of politicians looking to score cheap points rather than positive outcomes.

Britain’s standing with Europeans continues to fall with each passing day. Spanish foreign minister Alfonso Dastis said his government was "a little surprised by the tone of comments coming out of Britain", and told a conference in Madrid, "It seems someone is losing their cool." His comments suggest cynicism and exasperation - not the best emotions to evoke at this early stage of negotiations.

Meanwhile, his German counterpart Sigmar Gabriel has cautioned May’s timeline is unrealistic, and rejected the UK government’s apparent attempt to link security to the discussions. “No citizen in the EU or the UK would accept a negative impact on security due to a reduced level of cooperation after Brexit," he told The Independent.

It's important for Britain to remember that the EU has the upper hand. Look no further than May's initial claim that "no deal is better than a bad deal", which she has walked back after realising a seven-year wait for a deal with the World Trade Organisation, while receiving minimal support from the EU, is an unacceptable outcome. True, the EU wouldn't benefit from that arrangement either, but publicly punishing Britain could deter copycats and insure its future.

Minimising the fallout of Brexit will require British negotiators to learn from their mistakes, show greater tact, and favour compromise and mutual satisfaction over meaningless bluster. Less arrogance and more reconciliation will prevent international relationships from being damaged beyond repair. Now the clock is ticking, the time for empty threats and childish insults is past.