Following the arrival of Prime Minister May’s Article 50 letter in Brussels and the debate in the European Parliament on how to conduct the Brexit negotiations, I would like to share some thoughts on the importance of the text of agreements to be reached. But even more than the text itself, it will be the context in which the talks will take place that will lead to adoption or not.
Brussels is gearing up for the Olympic finals of diplomacy: a race against the clock to reach agreement on the Brexit conditions and a possible future EU-UK relations treaty. The exercise mobilizes triple A-teams of negotiators on the UK and on the EU27 side, all supported by the finest legal and political minds of their administrations. In the coming months, the top brass of the Commission, the EU Member States and the formidable British diplomatic corps will be drafting paragraphs, scrutinizing chapters, proposing alternative language and wordsmithing texts. Nobody believes that this will be a walk in the park and it took 9 months since the Brexit referendum to clear the hurdles just to get started. The UK had to clarify its unwritten constitutional requirements to commence the process based on Article 50 in the Supreme Court and both Houses of Parliament held a debate and voted to allow Prime Minister May to write the letter to Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council, launching the departure of the UK from the EU. White Papers outline the British expectations for the talks. Ministers travel to EU capitals to sound out the mood of the EU governments.
Meanwhile, the EU heads of government in the Council are drafting guidelines that will be translated into a negotiating mandate for the Commission’s team, led by Michel Barnier, to speak on behalf of the EU27. The leaked drafts indicate that serious differences exist already between he EU27 and the UK. The Commission, based on the EU Treaties, operates under the scrutiny of the European Court of Justice and needs to ensure continued support of the Member States while keeping the European Parliament properly informed.
No wonder that so many people, businesses, NGOs will spell out every text word for word. And comment on it. And opine on it. Media will speculate about the meaning of words and the consequences of phrases. They will search for conflict material and expose illusions. Winners and losers will be identified during the long course ahead.
Until, hopefully, an orderly Brexit agreement is reached and the contours of a future EU-UK relationship are defined, with necessary transitional arrangements in place, before 29 March 2019. The end-product will be a legal document in which every word counts and every line is subject to very careful interpretation.
But all this work may well lead up to nothing if the context is not right. The exit agreement needs to be agreed upon by a qualified majority of Member States and the European Parliament has to give its consent. The future relationship treaty requires unanimity among Member States and ratification by no less than 38 elected assemblies – from the European Parliament, over national parliaments to regional elected bodies. This is where things could go badly wrong for the so painfully agreed upon texts. If the popular mood turns against the agreements, parliaments may have second thoughts about granting their approval. And public opinions in 27 EU countries all have different concerns or react differently based on local circumstances. Even issues that were not at all considered during the negotiations can pop up and derail the ratification process. The stakeholders with important interests in an orderly Brexit and a viable future EU-UK relationship will of course share their concerns with the negotiators, both in the UK and in Brussels. However, that may not suffice.
They should equally engage in shaping the right context in which good agreements can be reached. Key will be to communicate clearly and publicly about what an outcome will mean and to do so in all 28 countries concerned, throughout the negotiating process, until final adoption is secured. The matter is too important to leave it solely to the negotiators. The message must also reach the people and their representatives who will ultimately have to endorse the deal.