Denis MacShane on why it would be foolish in the extreme to rush into exit negotiations before the European political landscape settles
PUBLISHED: 15:41 15 September 2016 | UPDATED: 15:41 15 September 2016
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When William Hague became Foreign Secretary in 2010 he grandly announced that he would transform the Foreign and Commonwealth Office into a giant trade promotion
bureau as the business of diplomacy would henceforth be business.
Ambassadors who had turned their embassies into exhibition centres for British goods – the sight of a Range Rover in the magnificent marbled entrance hall of the resplendently regal British embassy in Paris raised more than a few French eyebrows – listened politely to the new Foreign Secretary inventing the wheel and got on with trade promotion as they had done for decades if not centuries.
Now there is an absurd turf war between Boris Johnson and Liam Fox who have been tasked by the new Prime Minister, along with David Davis, the third of the Three Musketeers of Brexit, with turning her slogan “Brexit Means Brexit” into reality.
Anyone who has spent five minutes in Whitehall knows that the Sir Humphries of the FCO will see off Dr Fox just as they have seen off every challenge to their imperium ever since Charles James Fox was the first Foreign Secretary, as the new department was created to handle Britain’s foreign relations after the disaster of losing America in 1776.
Now Britain has lost Europe, and the Foreign Office – which quietly sends its best and brightest to work in Downing Street and elsewhere in Whitehall – will do its loyal best to fulfil the Prime Minister’s desire to turn the referendum wish into reality.
But the smartest suggestion so far has come from London’s new mayor Sadiq Khan, who has urged his predecessor and the Prime Minister to have a look at Europe’s political-electoral calendar next year.
This time next year we will a new president of France as even the most fervent of his disciples think there is little chance of President François Hollande rising from his current 14% standing in the polls to win a second term in the Elysée.
Either Nicolas Sarkozy will win his comeback bid or more likely Alain Juppé, who was prime minister of France in the 1990s and was sentenced to 18 months in prison over a political party funding scandal, will emerge. Either will beat Marine le Pen, whose Front National party is rather like the once mighty French Communist Party after the war. It can win millions of votes but hits a glass ceiling as no-one wants to risk an extremist in the Elysée.
In Germany, Angela Merkel, still seems to be mistress of all she surveys. But by September 2017 she will have spent 12 years as German chancellor and has to decide to get out while still admired or await the fate of all German chancellors who go on and on and on only to see her reputation fade away as it did with Helmut Kohl.
Italy and the Netherlands may also have new leadership by 2017 and Spain is without a stable or commanding government.
In short, to embark on negotiations in the next 12 months without knowing the political lie of the land across the Channel would be foolish in the extreme. In addition, the City and the broader London economy need time to weigh up which is more important – keeping access to the Single Market as WTO membership does not cover services or start fussing about requiring visas and work permits for all the Europeans who contribute so much to the London economy.
Having watched Theresa May for more than 15 years in the Commons I would judge her a politician who never rushes decisions and avoids the temptation of looking for a headline just for the sake of having her kitten heels in the tabloid press.
When she makes a mistake as she did over the silly “Shop an Illegal Immigrant” vans she quickly shuts down the problem. At the beginning of the Brexit campaign she made a speech saying she wanted to leave the European Convention of Human Rights but stay in the EU.
Now she has sensibly done a U-turn as finding the parliamentary time and majority – in both Commons and Lords – to leave the ECHR while negotiating Brexit is not possible politics.
She should leave time for all the stakeholders in Brexit – especially the City and in London commercial services and professions to come together and work out what they really want and need from Brexit.
And as Mayor Khan has said the UK should sensibly wait to get a feel of the new European political landscape which will emerge by the end of 2017. There is no rush. The Brexit vote was clear. But now the watchword should be festina lente – make haste slowly.
Meanwhile pro-European forces need to regroup and re-organise. The London march in support of Europe on September 3 is a start. We need to wait not just for the new leader of the Labour Party to emerge but how he and Labour MPs will handle the Europe question over the conference season and the return of Parliament.
It is not a question of ignoring the June 23 plebiscite but simply stating it is not the last word on Britain and Europe.