16 February 2015

David Frost authors this publication in a personal capacity and the views expressed therein do not necessarily reflect those of Open Europe.

Open Europe today publishes a guest essay by David Frost – until recently Britain’s most senior trade diplomat – setting out how Britain can best pursue an EU renegotiation if the Government follows this course after the General Election. David argues that for David Cameron – or any other prime minister – to conduct a successful negotiation on this scale in Europe, the UK government must change its own organisation and focus, including appointing a Ministerial Lead Negotiator to manage day-to-day talks. He also notes that many would see David Cameron’s  current reform agenda as rather unambitious, but that any attempt to secure fundamental reform would require much more preparation with EU partners to ensure the reforms are seen as reasonable and possible.

David Frost said:

Years of cuts and disempowerment under successive governments mean that the UK’s diplomatic mechanisms for dealing with Europe aren’t as effective as they should be. If EU renegotiation is to be successful, the Government must become more coherent and appoint a lead negotiator to manage day-to-day talks. To ensure government officials push hard for the best possible deal available, politicians need to be clear about the central priorities of the renegotiation and how aggressively they want them pursued.

“The good news is that there’s still plenty of expertise within Government and the history of negotiations shows that what once was seen as impossible can quickly become inevitable.

Executive Summary

If the Government is to make a success of a renegotiation it will need to address the weaknesses in the current mechanisms for European business.

  • It will need to shape the framework for the negotiation. Its record in engaging with European partners and “Europeanising” its wish list is, so far, not too bad.
  • But it will face bigger obstacles in dealing with the relative lack of trust others feel in Britain as a reliable negotiator, and in exerting any kind of influence within the European Parliament.
  • Current negotiating objectives do not seem to be particularly ambitious and it may be realistic to try to reach them in a relatively quick behind the scenes deal. But more ambitious objectives would need to be set out soon in full and pressed vigorously, so that, as others absorb them, they gradually come to be seen not as eccentric and unattainable but reasonable and within evolving mainstream opinion.
  • Within Britain, the Government will need to decide who is to be responsible to the Prime Minister for the overall conduct of negotiations. The best outcome has to be a full-time Lead Negotiator, perhaps with the title of Deputy Prime Minister for European Affairs, who is a senior, well-respected Parliamentarian with political authority, with no distractions, and able to operate in the Commons.
  • The current official-level mechanisms are not suitable for a complex and demanding renegotiation. A free-standing Renegotiation Unit responsible to the Lead Negotiator should be created. It should cover all the policy areas relevant to the renegotiation and line Departments should be shorn of their responsibilities in those areas until the renegotiation is concluded.
  • There is still sufficient European expertise within the bureaucracy to staff and support the Renegotiation Unit, though some redeployment may be needed.
  • But years of cuts and disempowerment have limited the capacity of many British Embassies in Europe to support a major European initiative. A further round of cuts after the Election will make this even worse.
  • As individuals, officials in the Foreign Office and elsewhere are far from starry-eyed about Europe and there is plenty of private Euroscepticism around. But they are used to operating the within the rules of the existing game, rather than trying to change them, and there is a strong official instinct to do deals and solve problems rather than press at the margins of what is possible. So politicians need to be clear about the central priorities of the renegotiation and how aggressively they want them pursued.
  • This renegotiation, if it happens, will not be conducted in a vacuum. There will be plenty of other foreign and European business demanding attention. The ongoing Eurozone strains could also go critical at any time, distracting the attention of potential allies and potentially relegating the British wish list to secondary status – though it could also create a more fluid situation which British negotiators could turn to their advantage.
  • This will be a disruptive period for the EU and not just because of British demands. To get results, Britain needs to make sure it is seen as working with others to put a failing system into better order rather than as presenting unreasonable British demands disrupting an essentially well-functioning system. But other European countries need to recognise that successful constitutions have balanced firmness and flexibility, fixity and the ability to evolve. Polities that have found that difficult – like the Austro-Hungarian Empire, another organisation underpinned by laws rather than by national feeling – have in the end often disintegrated.
  • In the UK there has been a lot of constitutional change in recent years and, for all the trauma it has caused, no-one has seriously suggested that aspirations in the UK’s nations to run more of their own affairs should simply be resisted or met in a purely token way. The EU could look closely at this lesson, and learn from it.

Please find the full briefing below. If you cannot view the PDF reader, you can access the briefing here.

About the author

David Frost was until recently the UK’s most senior trade diplomat, as Director for Europe, Trade and International Affairs at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. His permanent career was in the Foreign Office where he was inter alia Director for Policy Planning and a Director for the EU. Overseas he has served as HM Ambassador to Denmark, at the British Embassy in Paris, the UK Permanent Representation to the EU in Brussels, and the UK Mission to the UN in New York. In 2013, he left the Diplomatic Service to become Chief Executive of the Scotch Whisky Association. He is a member of Open Europe’s Advisory Council. He writes in a personal capacity and his views should not be taken to be representative of those of the Scotch Whisky Association or its member companies.

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