20th May 2019

Lack of UK chief EU negotiator 'recipe for confusion'

  • (Photo: Downing Street)

The planned division of labour within the UK government during the EU renegotiation process is a “recipe for confusion”, the House of Lords' EU committee said Tuesday (28 July) in a report.

The report suggested that the UK's EU presidency – in the second half of 2017 - could be postponed if it were to clash with the in/out referendum.

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The committee said nine cabinet members will be involved in negotiating prime minister David Cameron's “better deal” for the UK in the EU, which will subsequently will be put to the test in a referendum.

In addition, it cited “a system of senior officials in Number 10, the Cabinet Office, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and HM Treasury, not to mention Brussels-based UK officials” also involved.

The report said it asked Europe minister David Lidington who EU interlocutors would have to contact if they wished to speak to the UK's chief negotiator.

He replied: “It depends a bit on who and which other government we are talking about.”

“Politicians will want to talk to politicians, and civil servants to civil servants, but we are approaching this by having co-ordinated our positions among those individuals and key departments,” he added.

The Lords said this “account of how the internal Whitehall [government] process for handling the renegotiation will work is unrealistic” and called on the government to rethink the process.

The document follows, but was written before, a newspaper reported Sunday that Cameron will announce a referendum on EU membership for June 2016.

This earlier date would fit with the authors of the report, who noted the referendum should take place “as soon as possible, in order to minimise uncertainty for citizens, financial markets, businesses and other stakeholders in the UK and across the EU”.

However, the report warned that the renegotiation process, which has to be finished before the referendum, could be delayed because it involves 28 member states.

EU presidency

In parallel to the UK referendum preparations, the British government is currently preparing for the EU presidency. The presidency co-ordinates the day-to-day meetings in Brussels and negotiations on on-going laws with the European Parliament.

But the report said holding a referendum at the same as the presidency would be an “insuperable distraction”.

“To stage a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU while it holds the presidency would not only be highly undesirable, but also so difficult as to be practically impossible. … On the other hand, an earlier referendum would create the possibility that the UK may have voted to leave the EU before its presidency takes place. This would make a UK presidency in 2017 politically untenable”, the report said.

The report added that if in the “coming months” it emerges that a referendum can't be held in 2016, then the UK government should look for alternatives “which could involve requesting one of the succeeding Presidencies to move forward to the second half of 2017”.

Estonia and Bulgaria follow the UK in holding the six-month tenure.

The report, which does not argue in favour or against EU membership, also urged Cameron to make sure “the concerns of all member states are taken into account, regardless of size or perceived influence”.


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