A Herculean task for Government

A change without precedent

It would be difficult to overstate the task facing the government in its stated aim of exiting the EU.  This is arguably the most complex negotiation and policy task the UK Government has ever undertaken – certainly it is at least on par with the partition of Ireland, decolonisation or the establishment of the welfare state.

Relations between countries have changed fundamentally since the UK joined the EU in 1973, and so simply returning to the status quo ante is not an option.

As an example of the policy challenges that Brexit creates, consider the question of visas for French citizens.  The UK either has to introduce controls on, say, French citizens coming to Britain (straining the century-old Entente Cordiale alliance) or it has to discriminate between citizens of various European countries (which the EU would resist strongly) or we have to accept the free movement of EU citizens (thereby reneging on a key Leave campaign demand).  None of these options are without drawbacks. The Prime Minister has said that European freedom of movement into the UK will have to end, but the details on this are far from being determined.

The machinery of government

The Department for Exiting the EU has been established under Secretary of State David Davis.  At the time of writing the new department is still establishing its remit within the government and has a long way to go before it can sit at the negotiating table with the European Commission and Member States. The Foreign Office and the newly-established Department for International Trade are negotiating with Davis’s department on the precise divisions in policy remits.  All departments of government are struggling with the shortage of skilled civil servants experienced in negotiating on the finer points of EU law.

Theresa May has sensibly decided to “mainstream” Brexit work in government departments, just as managing relations with the EU was mainstreamed from the Foreign Office to relevant departments under Tony Blair.  In the 1990s it became apparent that the depth and breadth of the EU policy work was so great that each government department took responsibility for direct engagement with Brussels on areas of policy overlap.  In the same way, the task of extracting UK policymaking from EU influence will be handled by each department in their areas of remit.  Ms May has asked each member of Cabinet to return from the summer break with plans for their department’s Brexit strategy.

The thorniest of challenges

The policy issues to address include the following:

– negotiating trading rules with the EU bloc;
– negotiating trade deals with the world’s other 150-odd trading countries and zones;
– determining a new migration system;
– maintaining working relations with EU Member States in NATO and the UN while simultaneously conducting difficult negotiations with them;
– replacing the European Medicines Agency (the EU regulator based in London);
– determining the UK’s relationship with other European bodies such as the European Court of Human Rights and the Council of Europe;
– repealing and replacing laws enacting EU directives (some 14 per cent of the body of UK Laws)
– maintaining an open land border with the Republic of Ireland (an EU Member), as guaranteed by the Good Friday Peace Agreements, while satisfying Brexit calls for greater border control;
– setting fishing rights and environmental standards that are acceptable to neighbouring countries and domestic stakeholders;
– rewriting UK competition law, which is currently based on EU Common Market rules;
– safeguarding London’s position as the de facto financial capital of the European continent while being outside of EU rule-making and the main European currency zone;
– upskilling a domestic civil service capable of taking on regulatory responsibilities currently in Brussels; and
– replacing EU funding streams and subsidies for agriculture, science, education and infrastructure with UK Government programmes.

What you can do about it

First, businesses must be able to differentiate between spin and fact – a vital skill if they are to determine which of their interests are at stake, and where the opportunities truly lie.  Next, companies need a plan for engaging government.  Do not assume that government negotiators are aware of your interests.  Officials rely on businesses to help inform their “red lines”.

As in any negotiation, there will be compromises, and no side will achieve all their goals.  Companies need to know who to talk to, how to frame the message in a way that has maximum impact, and how to speak up in the public debate –  particularly through the media – in a way that helps our ministers safeguard your sector’s interests.