Martin McKee: A plan for Brexit? Some hope

Any lingering hope that the government had some master plan for exiting the EU was dispelled this week, says Martin McKee.

mcKee_martinAny lingering hope that the British government had some master plan for exiting the EU was dispelled when David Davis, the secretary of state charged with doing just that, appeared before the corresponding select committee of the House of Commons.

Many were surprised to see David Davis there at all. He had previously said that the government’s negotiating position was so secret that it might not be possible to share it with Parliament at all. Seemingly oblivious to the fact that our European partners felt no need for such secrecy, he failed to acknowledge that it would be possible to discover the British government’s negotiating position by the simple expedient of reading a foreign newspaper, which unlike the British media—with its focus on personalities rather than issues—at least largely understand the European Union. Instead, he seemed to think that he was being sent off to engage in covert discussions with some terrorist group. One had visions of him donning a wig and false beard as he boarded the Eurostar.

There are, of course, situations in which ministers are unable to share information with Parliament. Operations involving special forces or the deployment of Trident submarines are examples. However, in such cases, ministers will simply state that they are constrained by convention from speaking. This time, the secretary of state made no such attempt. Instead, he made it clear that he simply did not know the answers to the questions he was being asked. Indeed, in a few cases, it seemed that he had never even anticipated that anyone would ask the questions.

This was apparent from the outset. Davis confessed that, despite growing discussion about the possibility that the UK might leave with no deal, his department had made no assessment of the economic consequences of doing so. Hilary Benn MP, the chair of the committee, then went through a series of arrangements that are crucial for the UK, ranging from passporting rights for the financial institutions in the City of London to the future of the arrangements for flights between the US and EU. In each case, Davis responded that the existing arrangements were unlikely to continue but he expressed hope that alternative arrangements would be agreed. Quite how they would be agreed in the next 18 months was not explained.

There was one question where Davis suggested that he might know the answer but was not going to say. This was whether the letter triggering Article 50 would be long or short. That, he stated, was for the Prime Minister to disclose. Whether such a letter actually exists, even in draft, was not, however, revealed.

Perhaps the most astonishing insight was that, when asked whether UK residents would continue to have access to the European Health Insurance Card, he confessed that he had not even looked at the issue. Yet EU provisions for cross-border care have enormous implications: for UK citizens living in the rest of the EU, for UK residents travelling within Europe, and for other EU citizens living here. Clearly, the government’s stated concern for the first group does not extend to actually thinking through the practical problems they face, although this should not be too surprising, given how a senior official in the Department of Health responsible for European affairs recently reported to the health select committee that he had received no information on the department’s priorities, negotiation strategy, or practical arrangements—a response that caused one member of the committee, Ben Bradshaw MP, to exclaim “Good grief!”

The Secretary of State’s performance has been shared widely on social media, provoking both amusement and despair. However, this may be a little unfair. As those who understand the European Union have noted repeatedly, he has been given a task that is quite impossible. The Prime Minister has been unable to make a reasoned case for proposals to take the United Kingdom out of the single market and customs union. Indeed, as Nicola Sturgeon has shown, it is impossible to maintain the argument that the UK can thrive by breaking away from its largest trading partner, but for Scotland to do this would be disaster. Similarly, the simple expedient of substituting Ireland for any of the Prime Minister’s statements on Scotland quickly demonstrates the contradictions involved. Then there is the question of exiting the EU with no deal—a scenario that each of the three Brexit ministers seem to view quite differently.

Instead, the fault surely lies with the members of the select committee. With a handful of exceptions, including their chair, Hilary Benn MP, they completely failed to hold the government to account. This recalls the comments in that well known book, The Blunders of our Governments, in which the authors reported that “When asked directly about Parliament’s role in the commission of any particular blunder, they responded more often than not by shrugging and saying that Parliament had been ‘lax’ or even ‘useless.'” The performance of those MPs who support Brexit was especially lamentable. The overwhelming impression was that the last thing that they wanted to do was to find out how Brexit preparations were actually going, if at all.

Some observers believe that the Prime Minister is preparing the ground for the time, in a few months, when the UK walks away from the negotiations or—as has otherwise been put—when her rhetoric hits reality. They see, in her statements, an attempt to blame our European partners. This is not new. Many EU citizens living in the UK have been surprised to find that they were required to purchase private health insurance if they were to obtain permanent residency. The government has claimed that this is an EU requirement, even though, in 2011, the European Commission threatened infringement proceedings as it viewed such a requirement to be a breach of EU law.

Indeed, arguably, many of those who voted for Brexit did so because they were opposed to measures introduced by successive British governments that were blamed on the EU, but which actually had nothing to do with it. Undoubtedly, some of the pro-Brexit MPs on the select committee will be at the forefront of attacks on our European partners for refusing to give us a satisfactory deal. Maybe, had they given a bit more thought about ensuring that the British government actually had a sensible negotiating position, they would have less to complain about. At least, if that is what they really want. After all, it is always easier to blame others when you fail to prepare.

Martin McKee is professor of European public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.