Disaster from the start

PUBLISHED: 11:58 11 December 2017 | UPDATED: 11:59 11 December 2017

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The collapse of the Brexit talks exposed the government's atrocious diplomacy - but it was far from its only failure in this field, says former diplomat PAUL KNOTT

Theresa May’s failure to close the deal on the terms of Britain’s departure from the EU in Brussels was just the latest episode in her government’s diplomatically disastrous handling of Brexit.

May and her advisors committed the cardinal sin of any complex negotiation: they failed to ensure their position was watertight with everyone on their own side before going in to the room to put it to their counterparts.

The result was a Prime Minister being summoned from her meeting with EU leaders by a lower-ranking politician, DUP leader Arlene Foster, and being instructed to withdraw her proposal to her fellow heads of government. In several decades of practising and observing diplomacy, I cannot recall a more excruciatingly embarrassing episode for any political leader during an important international negotiation.

This diplomatic fiasco has several underlying causes. First, the government has failed to establish its objectives for the Brexit negotiations. If your desired destination is not clear in your own head, then you are unlikely to persuade your negotiating partners to help you to get there.

Basic personnel and organisational issues are also to blame. There are obvious questions to be raised about the abilities of the British government ministers leading this complex process. The Department for Exiting the EU (DExEU) was hastily cobbled together and still under construction after the negotiations had started – akin to attempting to bolt together a Formula One car as the others are accelerating away from the starting grid.

The only British government institution that could conceivably have handled the Brexit talks, the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO), was side-lined from the start. The early sacking of our respected Representative to the EU, Sir Ivan Rogers, emphasised its diminished status. He was removed for offering informed and honest counsel, rather than the hot air that ministers wanted to hear.

Worse still, the Foreign Office was then used as a place to park the troublesome Boris Johnson, rather than as the globally-envied negotiating asset it has long been. Johnson’s tenure has led to a calamitous loss of morale. Experienced FCO staff report how mindless “positivity” is now prized more highly than the proud tradition of providing sound advice to power.

British ineptitude has simplified the EU negotiating team’s task. Britain triggered Article 50 to start the clock counting down to Brexit before it was ready to start negotiating.

This mistake handed the EU side even more power than they had already, as the bigger party. From that moment, the time pressure was mostly on Britain to meet the EU’s requirements. Whatever the Brexiteer bluster, the EU negotiators know that a ‘no deal’ outcome when the two-year timescale set out in Article 50 runs out would hurt Britain far more than the EU.

This reduction in pressure made it easier for the EU to stick to the three clear requirements it had set out with for the first phase, on finances, the rights of EU citizens and the Irish border.

Nonetheless, close EU observers will recognise that it is no mean feat to establish a line that 27 countries and the EU Institutions can all adhere to with impressive discipline for 18 months.

Ultimately, though, the British negotiators have foundered because Brexit is based on lies, fantasies and contradictions. Even if their diplomacy had been at its finest, it would not have been enough to rescue such a blatantly incoherent project.

Paul Knott is a former British diplomat and the author of The Accidental Diplomat; he lives in Switzerland.

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