2.RUN, BREXIT, RUN
BSSB.BE cer.eu 1/03/2019
* “If you have the guts to be yourself, other people’ll pay your price.” ― John Updike, Rabbit, Run
How not to leave the EU
Exiting the EU is a process in which the departing country holds very few cards – the money it owes being one of them. So Brexit was always going to be an unequal negotiation. But the British have handled their exit particularly badly, thereby exacerbating the weakness of their position, in at least three ways.
First, May’s government made strategic and tactical errors in the conduct of the negotiations. The prime minister set out her red lines for the Brexit talks in a speech to the Conservative Party Conference in October 2016, excluding a role for the European Court of Justice, freedom of movement and membership of the single market. She made that speech without having thought through the consequences; no official was allowed to read it in advance (later she added no customs union to her list of red lines).
In that speech the prime minister was trying to curry favour with Tory eurosceptics, especially when she said that “if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere – you don’t understand what citizenship means”. For much of her prime ministership, May has made minimal efforts to build bridges with the 48 per cent of Britons who voted Remain, or to the businesses that fear a distant relationship with the EU. But having embarked on the path towards a hard Brexit, she then spent the following two years learning that such a course would be very damaging to the economy; rather late in the day, she sought to change direction towards a softer Brexit. That meant blurring some red lines and provoking supporters of a hard Brexit.
Another tactical error was to send the EU her Article 50 letter, activating the withdrawal process, in March 2017. It is true that she was under pressure from both her eurosceptic backbenchers and from the EU to get a move on. But she sent the letter too soon, because she had no plan for Brexit. She should have waited till she knew what she wanted. And once the letter was sent, the clock started to tick: the UK would automatically leave on March 29th 2019, with or without a deal. The ticking clock put the EU in a very strong position.
May never developed a proper strategy for Brexit, in the sense of determining the desired ends and the means needed to deliver them. So she took far too long to work out what she wanted. All through the Brexit talks, the texts that the two sides discussed were EU texts. The UK failed to produce its own proposals, which allowed the EU to set the agenda. When May finally came up with a blueprint for the future relationship, in June 2018 – the so-called Chequers plan and its associated white paper – it was too little, too late to make much impact on the EU.
The plan’s section on customs (allowing the UK to set its own tariffs at the same time as eliminating border controls between the UK and the EU) was regarded as unworkable by the EU (and many British officials). The provisions that would allow the UK to stay in the single market for goods by aligning with EU rules were more serious; but they failed to take account of EU concerns that the British could distort the level playing field by undercutting continental firms in areas such as social and environmental rules or competition policy.
As one EU negotiator put it: “If the UK had produced the Chequers plan a year earlier, and met our concerns about the level playing field, it would have been hard for us to reject it.” But coming when it did, in the form it did, the plan was rejected.
- The explanation for these tactical errors, of course, was May’s fear of upsetting her party’s hard-Brexiteers. Especially after she lost her parliamentary majority in the general election of May 2017 – which left her dependent on the votes of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) – she lacked the authority to take on her right wing.
- She was painfully slow in developing a plan because she could not get her fissiparous party to unite behind a common line – and when she did finally concoct a model for the future relationship, key ministers such as Boris Johnson and David Davis resigned.
- The second reason why the UK was in an especially weak position was that its government was divided – while the EU played a blinder in uniting behind the solid, sober and serious leadership of Michel Barnier, the Commission’s chief negotiator. He made a big effort to stay in touch with the 27 capitals – and the European Parliament – and therefore won their confidence.
- His ‘Task Force 50’, working closely with the Germans and the French, set a firm line, which to the UK was hard and to the EU was principled. Some of the member-states had reservations about this line but they still went along with it. They understood that if they kept together they would achieve more of their objectives. The UK tried hard to work with its ‘friends’ – such as the Dutch, Swedes, Irish and Poles – to soften the EU’s stance, but with little success.
In 2018 the EU was disunited on countless issues, but not on how to handle the British. Meanwhile May and her top officials were greatly weakened in the negotiations by the continuing Tory civil war over Europe. Quite often, May would tell her EU partners one thing, her Brexit secretary (David Davis, or later on his replacement, Dominic Raab) would tell them another and her officials would have a third point of view.
To take just one example, in early November 2018, Raab said to Ireland’s foreign minister that the UK expected the right to pull out of the Irish protocol after three months – contradicting what other British ministers and officials were saying. That civil war – and the often crude and thoughtless comments coming out of the mouths of senior politicians and commentators (such as Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s comparison of the EU and the USSR at the 2018 Tory conference) – did a lot to tarnish the UK’s reputation and lose it goodwill.
The third reason why the UK weakened its hand in the Brexit talks was the sheer ignorance and incompetence of its political leaders. For most of the time since the referendum they have failed to level with the British people about the painful trade-offs that Brexit would inevitably entail: if the UK wanted close economic ties with the EU it would have to forego sovereignty, and if it wanted regulatory autonomy it would have to accept barriers to trade with the EU.
May eventually understood the trade-offs but did not explain them to the people. Indeed, for much of the Brexit process she would not accept what experts told her. For example, late in 2017 she was still saying that the entire future trading relationship could be negotiated before Brexit happened (in fact trade talks will not start until after Brexit and are likely to take around five years).
- The EU did not have a problem with the British officials that it dealt with, but became frustrated with the inability of their political masters to allow them to negotiate. The persistent tendency of UK politicians to make gross factual errors grated.
- For example, many of them said that trading on WTO terms would not be so bad since that was how the UK traded with the US, ignoring the fact that UK-US trade is facilitated by dozens of US-EU agreements covering areas such as data, aviation, financial services and pharmaceuticals.
- And then David Davis said (shortly after resigning) that it would not matter if the UK left without a deal, since it could use the transitional period to negotiate a free trade agreement (FTA) with the EU – apparently unaware that without a deal there is no transition. Whatever the result of the Brexit process, the appalling performance of the UK’s political class – and in particular the narcissistic Tory psychodrama on Europe – has permanently stained its reputation, and not only in Europe.
Politics, principles and precedent
Any member-state contemplating an exit in future years will pay close attention to the EU’s priorities during the Brexit talks. They may be described as the ‘three Ps’ – politics, principles and precedent. Note that economics was not a priority – a point that many British eurosceptics have failed to understand.
Because the British have always tended to see the rationale of the EU as economic, they assumed that EU leaders would also prioritise future trading ties. Brexiteer ministers assured the British people that the EU would not do anything that could endanger its trade surplus in manufactured goods with the UK. They were wrong.
The most important driver of the EU’s response to Brexit was politics. The French and German governments, and others too, saw Brexit as potentially an existential threat.
If the British flourished outside the EU, others might think seriously about leaving. “We don’t want Marine Le Pen to say, ‘Look at the Brits, they are doing just fine, let us join them’”, said a French official. Every EU government which had to worry about a powerful eurosceptic movement made this point.
- The publication is not an editorial. It reflects solely the point of view and argumentation of the author. The publication is presented in the presentation. Start in the previous issue. The original is available at: cer.eu