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16 December 2016

The European Parliament’s chief negotiator threat of unilateral Brexit talks could play into Britain’s hands, especially as the UK’s defence infrastructure becomes an ever more unique bargaining chip.

Much was made of Theresa May’s snub, captured on video as EU leaders gathered together for an informal chat at the European Council this week, along with her absence at the summit’s late night dinner. Many parts of the media revelled in Britain’s supposed isolation, even though May was also pictured participating in light-hearted discussion with several of her counterparts at the same gathering. Seeing sense in allowing the EU to discuss its negotiating position, the Prime Minister had informed the Council that she would not be attending the dinner a few weeks earlier.

Given the time of year, it seems only right that the UK should exercise some charitable spirit, the way the EU is going about the negotiations is pitiful. The leader of the Parliament’s Liberal grouping, Guy Verhofstadt was enraged with the Council’s clearance for the European Commission to act as lead Brexit negotiator. The grounds for Verhofstadt’s complaint are weak, the Commission acts as the EU’s single negotiator in all external affairs, why should it be any different in this instance? Furthermore, the European Parliament represents only a 28th of those parties that must ratify Britain’s eventual exit arrangement. The other 27, namely the EU’s Member States minus the UK, are all happy for the Commission to take the reins.

Verhofstadt’s grievance may be illogical, but that does not mean that he, as the European Parliament’s lead negotiator (whatever that means) will not follow through on his threat to carry out negotiations with the UK unilaterally. Much like his country, the former Prime Minister of Belgium is an ardent European federalist. He will seek to do the utmost to uphold the integrity of the European Parliament, the greatest example of the enduring possibility of a single unitary European nation state – yet another dubious notion.

Daft, but helpful

We may snigger at such a development, but it could easily play into Britain’s hands. Theresa May would have every right to tell Verhofstadt to mind his own business and score an easy point, but by opening up a separate line of dialogue she could widen the negotiating space. Enabling differences of opinion between the two EU institutions to manifest themselves will provide an opportunity for us to encourage compromises in our favour.

At the very least, a parallel negotiation would bank some good will to cash out when the European Parliament does have to ratify whatever emerges from the Article 50 negotiations. Of course, there is a risk that the Parliament will take an even harder line than the Commission, but just as EU member states have as much to fear from a shunted UK enjoying the spoils independence, so do EU Parliamentarians.

A Separate negotiation with the European Parliament will also help to counterbalance political point scoring during elections in France, Germany and perhaps Italy that may come at the expense of Britain. But most importantly, it will add yet another headache to the European Commission, which is faced with the mountainous task of distilling the diverging views of 27 EU countries into a single negotiating position.

Such is the brevity of the Article 50 negotiating period, once we arrive at the business end of the negotiations, the European Commission, the European Parliament and the Member States may have to make some decisions based on little prior consideration. The least risky option for them will be to offer us Brits the terms we want. This is the essential bargaining strength Leave.EU campaigned on from the very beginning. The only concern is that our own negotiators will loosen the grip on the EU by offering an interim deal and therefore a separate negotiation towards a longer term deal.

Parking whose tanks

One issue that will have already invited consideration is Britain’s defence and intelligence bargaining chip. At the European Council summit this week, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said, “We are facing multiple crises, with fires in every corner, and not just in Europe’s corners”. The Council then agreed to forge ahead with an array of defence cooperation programmes.

But what these measures will achieve is hard to gauge. Principle among them is greater cooperation with NATO, which is another way of saying that the Atlantic alliance remains the bulwark of Europe’s defence infrastructure. The concerns of Mr Juncker, and many others on the continent, are pointed squarely at Russia, but with the next President of France – the only European nuclear power other than Britain – likely to be amenable to the Kremlin, Britain’s vast military and intelligence assets are set to be even more vital to European defence policy. Eastern European countries for one are likely to revise what is expected to be an aggressive line on open borders amid the threat of Russia flexing its muscles on their doorstep.

The debate over future European defence cooperation is also playing out against the backdrop of the Trump Presidency. Lamenting the eastern Atlantic’s weak defence expenditure, the President-elect has promised to take a hard line on America’s future membership of NATO. Withdrawal is unlikely, but Europe will be expected to play its part to a greater extent, and with the UK outside of the EU, the European Union will not be in a position to help fill the gap. In other words, they need us.