17 February 2015

How can David Cameron succeed in European negotiations?

David Frost, until recently Britain’s most senior trade diplomat, the CEO of the Scotch Whiskey Association and a member of Open Europe’s Advisory Council, started by introducing his guest publication for Open Europe “How EU renegotiation will happen and how to pursue it”.

The essay, which is featured by the  The Financial Times, sets out a number of areas where the UK has to improve if it is to succeed in shifting the debate in the EU, from fully resourcing its depleted EU embassies to ensuring that the direction of negotiations are set clearly from the very top of government if it is to overcome civil servants’ inherent reluctance to push the envelope.

The UK should appoint a Deputy Prime Minister for Europe

The UK should appoint a lead negotiator (a Deputy Prime Minister for Europe), with a specific renegotiation unit to lead. If David Cameron is re-elected as Prime Minister, he will not be embarking on a traditional EU negotiation and the UK will need to adopt a “campaign” mentality. Frost argued that the UK is currently “not geared up” for this type of negotiation. While the UK has the skills, they need to be deployed in the right places. Furthermore, civil servants need to be able to act in a more political manner across all levels, interacting and influencing EU journalists, politicians and MEPs within the European Parliament.

As individuals, officials in the Foreign Office and elsewhere are far from starry-eyed about Europe and there is plenty of euroscepticism around.But they are used to operating 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.

David Frost, CEO, Scotch Whisky Association

The EU must demonstrate it is able to adapt to survive

David noted that, in the UK there has been huge demand for constitutional change in recent years, particularly in Scotland, and that no-one has seriously suggested that aspirations in the UK’s nations to run more of their own affairs should simply be resisted out of hand. He concluded that institutions “that do not evolve tend to disappear” and that the EU had a responsibility and an opportunity to demonstrate it was flexible enough to accommodate different national views.

The UK must make its arguments appear mainstream in the EU

Nikhil Rathi, who negotiated key EU financial services regulations while a senior official at HM Treasury, responded to David by agreeing that whatever the UK asks for must be made to seem mainstream in the EU. UK influence should be used across the spectrum, from EU leaders to all groups of civil society in other member states. He noted that the UK civil service machine has traditionally been good at providing high quality analytical material but is less comfortable with the politics.

Nikhil was however cautious about the idea of creating a dedicated EU renegotiation unit, arguing that although it was important for individual departments to be coordinated, previous experience had shown this is possible under the existing arrangements. In response to EU plans for banking union, the Treasury, Foreign Office, UKREP and the then Financial Services Authority presented a unified front with great success.

Nikhil argued that although the final stages of the negotiations would likely result in a high-level political deal among EU leaders, it was important that the ground was prepared both in Europe and in the UK for such a deal to stick. EU leaders would need to sell EU reforms to their own national parliaments and the UK electorate would need to be convinced in a referendum campaign. UK and EU negotiators will therefore need to work on the presumption that the talks would be “semi-public”.