The European Commission’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier stated last week that “The first condition [of the Article 50 negotiation] is the unity of the 27, which goes hand in hand with transparency and public debate.” Barnier’s declaration isn’t just posturing, nor is it solely an attempt to pressure the UK into revealing more during the talks. It is also about Brussels limiting its own obvious weaknesses. EU institutions have long been known to be “leaky”, so it makes sense to compensate by playing on future Brussels openness. Aiming for transparency also emphasises how much the Commission needs to keep its own member states and national parliaments in line, if negotiations are to be successful. And, it reminds us that the Commission is a veteran of large scale and lengthy negotiations — after many recent setbacks, it may now be becoming sager on how to handle the communications challenges that negotiations present.
As highlighted a few years ago, the proposed EU-US trade agreement, TTIP — strongly backed at the outset by the majority of EU governments — was hamstrung from the beginning by lack of thought around how to package and present the negotiations to the public. The Commission failed to grasp the importance of succinctly communicating TTIP’s objectives and, most significantly, it failed to communicate directly to citizens. With speculation and rumour around the early stages of the talks, campaign groups and NGOs succeeded in shifting the narrative to TTIP’s supposedly malign intentions (see the much hyped TTIP threat to the NHS — long refuted by Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström). TTIP started out as a relatively confidential negotiation, but as the EC came under pressure from campaigners, it quickly transformed it into one of the more transparent, with the Commission regularly making detailed documents available around the talks. But the Commission was not quick enough to react, the damage to TTIP’s reputation had been done, and the negative NGO narrative about the talks still dominates today.
The more recent difficulties in the final ratification of the Free Trade Agreement between Canada and the EU, CETA, shocked the Council and the European Commission and illustrated how the shared goals of the many member states could be sabotaged by a single member parliament (in this case the regional Belgian parliament of Wallonia). The Commission may reasonably calculate that a transparent approach could diminish the opportunity for one of the EU-27 to cynically subvert Article 50 negotiations to suit a domestic political agenda.
In the UK, communications experience in drawn-out international negotiations-is something that the government lacks: Whitehall is inherently secretive, and opening up the negotiations to the UK parliament, never mind the public, is viewed with suspicion by certain Whitehall officials and in №10. It could therefore fit with UK government thinking- much less leaky than Brussels — to attempt to build confidentiality as an asset in its negotiating strategy. Such a tactic would be risky though, and could quickly be undone by Barnier’s openness strategy. This is because even if the UK parliament does not have effective powers of scrutiny over the negotiations, the European Parliament, through its power of veto and existing rights of scrutiny, will access much of the ongoing negotiating information, on top of the Commission and Barnier trying to make as much negotiating data available to the public as possible. So, a lot of valuable information about the negotiations may soon become publicly available from the EU side anyway, except this time it may not be from leaks. Unless the UK aims at openness too, the EU27 could feasibly win control of the Article 50 narrative.