17:33, June 30 224 0 theguardian.com

2017-06-30 17:33:02
PM's European court stance has 'hamstrung' Brexit negotiations

Theresa May’s “absolutist” stance on Britain leaving the jurisdiction of the European court of justice has “hamstrung” David Davis in negotiations with Brussels, according to the Brexit secretary’s former chief of staff.

James Chapman, who worked for George Osborne before serving as Davis’s chief of staff until shortly before the election, said May’s insistence that the ECJ must not have oversight once Britain leaves the EU, revealed in her party conference speech last year, had made the negotiators’ task more difficult.

“She’s taken some absolutist positions on particular issues – I’m thinking of the European court of justice,” he told the BBC’s Week in Westminster. “She’s set a red line effectively for a conference speech that hamstrung these negotiations in my view,” said Chapman, who left government before the election and has now become a partner at the PR firm Bell Pottinger.

He praised his former boss as a “tough, resilient operator”, but added, “there have been red lines that have been set for him that make the job he has to do very difficult.”

May, who was keen to win over Ukip voters and assuage the fears of Brexiters that a remainer might not be fully committed to leaving the EU, told her party in Birmingham last autumn, “Let’s state one thing loud and clear: we are not leaving the European Union only to give up control of immigration all over again. And we are not leaving only to return to the jurisdiction of the European court of justice. That’s not going to happen.”

This bar on future ECJ involvement has already become contentious in the first phase of the negotiations, with the EU insisting that the rights of EU citizens already living in the UK must be underpinned in perpetuity by the ECJ.

May has said these rights will be enforceable in UK law; but government sources have also hinted that a new oversight body could be established to arbitrate in disputes and perhaps also deal with questions over any future trade deal.

Chapman said May’s stance on the ECJ had also had a knock-on effect in other areas, including forcing the government to pull out of Euratom – the European body that oversees standards in the nuclear industry across the continent – because the ECJ is the ultimate enforcer of its rules.

“Now the government has announced its intention to withdraw from the Euratom treaty as we leave the EU and the reason for that appears to be there’s a locus for the ECJ in that treaty which covers the free movement of nuclear scientists.

“Now I would have thought the UK would like to continue welcoming nuclear scientists who are all probably being paid six figures and are paying lots of tax. But we’re withdrawing from it because of this absolutist position on the European court. I think she could show some flexibility in that area,” he said.

Asked if other cabinet ministers would be cheering if May had a change of heart, he said, “I think they would be and I think if she doesn’t shift on Euratom I think the parliament will shift it for her.”

Chapman’s intervention came as Damian Green, whom May appointed as first secretary of state as she sought to shore up her position in the aftermath of the election, urges his party to heed the message of the electorate, and reinvent itself.

Speaking to the conference of Bright Blue, the liberal Conservative thinktank, in London on Saturday, Green is expected to say: “I am not standing here and saying all we need to do is keep calm and carry on. We need to think hard, work hard, and change hard.”

He will add: “Modernisation in 2017 involves, as ever, listening to the complaints of those who are being excluded and developing both individual policies and an overall message which speaks to them.”