Dianne Hayter on the changing tone of the Brexit negotiations

Whilst most media attention is on COVID-19, below the radar – but also of consequence to every citizen - is the small matter of the UK-EU negotiations on our future trade, diplomatic, security and travel relationship after the end of this year.

This near silence is hardly surprising given the government’s virtual secrecy on the issue, as it fails to follow the precedent set by David Davis and Theresa May in reporting to Parliament after each round of talks.

Instead, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has sent a civil servant to bat for Britain – an individual who does not have to answer to the House of Commons nor, in its wake, the Lords. So, after the first round on 5th March, whilst Michel Barnier gave a press conference and answered questions, the UK had to make do with a 200 word written statement.

Luckily, some light has been shone on the talks by the Lords EU Committee which has compared the October 2019 Political Declaration signed by Boris Johnson, the EU’s mandate for the talks, and the government’s 27th February approach to the future agreement.

It is this Committee report, together with the government’s document, that will be debated in the Lords today, along with a call from our benches for ministers to report back regularly, make documents available, and engage with Parliament throughout the negotiations.

Without such on-going dialogue, MPs will face a “take-it-or-leave-it” Treaty at the end of the year, with refusal to ratify meaning a No Deal exit. A position that might yet be what the government advocates, given it has already threatened to do so if the broad outline of an agreement is not clear by June and finalised by September.

Even before the current global health pandemic put a question mark over next week’s round two of the negotiations, this was a challenging timetable – with our government rather unclear on its expectations from a treaty. Its document is certainly light on some crucial elements, including any demand that UK tourists should be able to travel to the EU visa-free, despite other statements referencing this. And while bending over backwards to rule out any role for the European Court of Justice, it contains no plans for dispute resolution should problems later arise.

The document is also deeply worrying in tone – “we’ll only agree to so-and-so if it’s fair and in our interests”. But also, as The Financial Times has observed, because “the longer Boris Johnson holds power, the faster Brexit is evolving into a project more extreme than most people envisaged during the referendum”.

The most problematic issue between the UK and EU is fair competition and the level playing field. This is vital for consumers, for workers (who fear conditions could be cut to reduce costs) and business (who fear trade with our biggest market could be jeopardised if we behave unfairly either by lowering standards or using unfair state aid interventions). 

The government says it wants no tariffs, charges or restrictions, but fails to accept this means shared standards, recognised enforcement and independent checks. EU countries are hardly going to accept our goods tariff free if they are produced to lower standards, or by simply paying workers less.

Examining both the UK and EU opening bids, the Lords Committee stresses the extent to which the two sides have diverged since the October Agreement. It considers this “raises matters of vital national interest” – which Parliament must debate. Peers will do so today, as we await greater insight into the progress of these talks with interest.

Baroness Dianne Hayter is Labour’s Deputy Leader in the House of Lords. She tweets @HayteratLords

Published 16th March 2020

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