Mrs May’s letter to President Tusk triggering Article 50 is a strange document. President Tusk waved it in the air in a manner rather different from that of Neville Chamberlain returning from Munich. “Here is the paper…” President Tusk said, with evident consternation, “Six pages!” What did he mean? Was it too long or too short? The important message was contained in two sentences buried within the text:
I hereby notify the European Council in accordance with Article 50(2) of the Treaty on European Union of the United Kingdom’s intention to withdraw from the European Union. In addition, in accordance with the same Article 50(2) as applied by Article 106a of the Treaty Establishing the European Atomic Energy Community, I hereby notify the European Council of the United Kingdom’s intention to withdraw from the European Atomic Energy Community.
I think Mrs May might have done well to leave it at that. The rest of the text was reminiscent of a “Dear John” letter designed to effect the break-up of a relationship while letting the other side down gently. You know the sort of thing. “We can still be friends…” There was even a hint of “It’s not you, it’s me…” in Mrs May’s contrite “there can be no ‘cherry picking’” (it crossed my mind that might be because there will be no East European labour available for the crop next harvest).
But let us subject Mrs May’s 2200 words to close textual analysis (not that I counted: Eddie Mair, sitting in for Andrew Marr on Sunday morning, did. Gibraltar’s not mentioned.)
Dear President Tusk,
On 23 June last year, the people of the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union.
As I have said before, that decision was no rejection of the values we share as fellow Europeans.
Now, how does Mrs May know that? A referendum is rather a blunt instrument, usually offering an electorate, as in this case, a binary choice. Cabinet decision-making is liable to be more nuanced and may more reflect the rationale underpinning an executive action. Mrs May would need to peer into the minds of millions of voters to know whether or not European values were being rejected. On the face of it, the much cherished four freedoms – freedom of movement of goods, people, services, and capital – might be said to be EU values which the British electorate has rejected.
This letter sets out the approach of Her Majesty’s Government to the discussions we will have about the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union and about the deep and special partnership we hope to enjoy – as your closest friend and neighbour – with the European Union once we leave.
That is like flirting with your spouse while suing for divorce.
We therefore believe it is necessary to agree the terms of our future partnership alongside those of our withdrawal from the European Union.
This is an important point for Mrs May because she actually makes it in her letter three further times, as follows:
The United Kingdom wants to agree with the European Union a deep and special partnership that takes in both economic and security cooperation. To achieve this, we believe it is necessary to agree the terms of our future partnership alongside those of our withdrawal from the EU.
Note that on this second occasion of stressing the necessity of conducting withdrawal and renegotiation discussions in parallel, Mrs May also conflates economic with security issues.
We want to be able to agree a deep and special partnership, taking in both economic and security cooperation.
This is a third iteration of the parallel negotiations theme, with a second iteration of the economic-security conflation. Mrs May also points out that the failure to reach a deal, and the resulting default to the fall-back position of World Trade Organisation terms, would weaken the fight against international crime and terrorism. But she does not explain why this should be so.
It is for these reasons that we want to be able to agree a deep and special partnership, taking in both economic and security cooperation.
Fourth economic, third security iteration. Is Mrs May being so repetitive because she fears President Tusk will not pick up on these points? She need not have worried. President Tusk said immediately that parallel talks were not going to happen. You can hardly blame him. Imagine resigning from a golf club, cancelling your subscription, then insisting on setting the green fees for visitors.
The process in the United Kingdom
This is a paragraph about the business of converting the body of existing European law (the “acquis”) into UK law. What will be tweaked, devolved, reserved, or dumped? Why should President Tusk be remotely interested? It’s a bit like the divorcee telling her ex, having settled the inventory, how she is going to dispone her cut of the CDs around her new living room. Not only that, she wants to retain a close interest in the affairs of the ex, when all the ex wants to do, following a short period of mourning, is to start afresh with somebody else.
Proposed principles for our discussions
Mrs May expounds seven principles.
i We should engage with one another constructively and respectfully, in a spirit of sincere cooperation.
When I first read that I thought, well, she would say that, wouldn’t she? Yet I can hardly say it is a truism. Indeed it is worth saying. I remember on the day after the referendum Nigel Farage addressed the European Parliament in a breath-taking display of schadenfreude (remember: “you laughed at me; well, you aren’t laughing now”). It was clear that he did not consider the EU to be a benign institution. Mrs May needed to tell the EU that she wishes it to prosper. Having said that, however, five of the six remaining principles do seem be of the “taken-as-read” variety, to wit –
ii We should always put our citizens first
iii We should work towards securing a comprehensive agreement
iv We should work together to minimise disruption and give as much certainty as possible
vi We should begin technical talks on detailed policy areas as soon as possible, but we should prioritise the biggest challenges
And vii We should continue to work together to advance and protect our shared European values.
Six pages. A thicket of platitudes?
Yet, buried away inside all of this, there is one further crucial principle.
v In particular, we must pay attention to the UK’s unique relationship with the Republic of Ireland and the importance of the peace process in Northern Ireland.
It strikes me that it is this issue more than any other, the reality of a land border between the EU and the UK, which will result in a profound alteration in the constitutional arrangements within the British Isles.