Thursday 27 April 2017

As the EU finalises its negotiating guidelines, it's time for Brexiters to get real

The future of Britain is going to be shaped to a far greater extent by Saturday’s EU-27 Council meeting than it will be by the June general election. That is one of the many ironies of the Brexiter mantra of ‘taking back control’, because whilst the chain of coming events was begun not by the EU but by the British referendum, the shape of those events will be very much down to the EU.

So insular has the discussion in the UK been before and since the referendum that one might think that Brexit is simply a matter of the UK formulating its demands. The EU will then fall into line because ‘it’s in their interests’ or ‘it’s in Germany’s interests’ or even because ‘it’s in German’s car industry’s interests’; and anyway because ‘we’re the world’s fifth largest economy’. There are many versions of this wishful thinking, all of them completely devoid of any understanding whatsoever of how the EU – or the world in general – operates. If it was how they think, then Britain would never have left the EU, since doing so is so far at odds with both our national and business interests.

It’s true that in the immediate aftermath of the referendum Britain might have been able to pursue a soft Brexit of single market membership. That would have taken considerable diplomatic and political skill, but it might have been achievable. Instead, everything the government has done since then has had the effect of making goodwill and room for manoeuvre disappear. And not just the government. EU leaders (and their electorates) see and have disdain for the infantile headlines of the Brexit press, and they don’t simply laugh off Farage’s oafish rudeness, on the odd occasions he turns up at the European Parliament, or Johnson’s boorish buffoonery about ‘prison guards’ and ‘Prosecco exports’.

So whilst Britain has been engaging in an orgy of stupidity and insularity, the EU has, almost since the day after the referendum, been quietly and consistently developing its stance, as explained in this excellent three-part summary of the EU’s position by David Allen Green of the FT. It is a stance that has changed very little from what was indicated before the referendum, and every leave voter who cared to could have known in broad terms what it would be. None of them can say there was no warning.

The time for wishful thinking, gutter press headlines and vapid slogans ended when Article 50 was triggered. Since then, Brexit has come face to face with reality. Donald Tusk’s immediate response was polite in tone, but uncompromisingly plain in content. Primary issues to agree would be the rights of EU citizens in the UK, the (or at least the methodology for calculating the) British exit bill for commitments already made, and Northern Ireland. Exit terms would have to be, at least, progressed first to a degree acceptable to the EU (not the UK, the EU) and only then could there be the beginning of talks on future terms, including trade. Interestingly, almost immediately the British government accepted this definition of process, even though it was exactly the opposite of what they had set out in the A50 letter, and the implications for the time frame for a trade deal that went with it. Reality bites #1.

The European Council draft negotiation guidelines in full contained greater detail, but no surprises save for the mention of Gibraltar (which I have discussed elsewhere), including emphasis that no sector-by-sector single market membership would be envisaged and that no bilateral talks between members of the EU-27 and the UK would be allowed. Again, both of these had been hoped for and even expected by the government which, again, almost immediately accepted that it would not be so. Reality bites #2.

Unless Saturday’s meeting produced something unexpected (and reports of the Luxembourg pre-meeting today suggest not) we already know that it will be likely to endorse the draft guidelines, albeit that leaks suggest some hardening, especially on financial services and on the issue of EU nationals in the UK. On the latter, this is likely to include a requirement for a quicker and simpler citizenship process and the guarantee of their legal rights. There is a particular, and instructive, symbolic importance to this. The EU is negotiating for itself and its citizens. That should seem obvious, but it points up both the determination of the EU to negotiate en bloc, and the fact that this is not going to be like all the EU negotiations of past decades where the UK has been negotiating as a member state and, very often, able to shape the nature of the EU. Now, there are very clearly two sides across the table. Reality bites #3.

The fundamental underlying issue is one that almost every EU spokesperson has made clear before and since the referendum. There will be no deal agreed by the EU in which Britain has a better situation as a non-member than it would have as a member of the EU. That logic is simple and understandable. But that does not mean that Britain has nothing to negotiate for – there are better and worse versions of a 'less good' situation than membership.

There are two great dangers for Britain now. One is that key parts of economic and social activity simply pack up and go without waiting for the outcome of the negotiations, with long-term and serious consequences. There is already evidence of an academic brain drain, with all that that implies for British pre-eminence in research, especially scientific and medical research, and its very successful university ‘export business’. Likewise, plans to move financial services jobs out of London are proceeding apace, with all that that implies for the already very eroded and fragile UK tax base and, hence, for public services.

This first danger might be minimised if the second one is avoided. To put it bluntly, Britain – and Brexiters in particular – have got to get real, and quickly. The crazy reaction to the mention of Gibraltar in the draft guidelines is an object lesson in what needs to be avoided. In particular, the danger now and in the coming months is that Brexiters in politics and the press whip up the idea that the EU is ‘punishing’ Britain for leaving. That is nonsense, and as Tusk and others have repeatedly said there is no need for punishment: Brexit is punishment enough. Brexiters of course will disagree and see Brexit as no punishment at all. Fine, but in that case accept that leaving means leaving, and that the EU will pursue its own interests which do not, now, include us, and drop any talk of being punished for a decision that you made with all the facts available to you.

This is a big ask of Brexiters, because it goes against the victim mentality that propelled them to victory in the referendum. But they need to own that victory now. They frequently complain that ‘remoaners’ are talking down the country and seek viciously to silence them. But the real damage to the country comes from Brexiters refusing to deal in a detailed, pragmatic way with the consequences of the choice they have made. Every screaming headline and every bellicose punch-drunk interview from a Brexiter politician damages us more. Taking back control requires, first, a degree of self-control and, second, an acceptance that having, in their terms, done so by winning the referendum, they now have to face the realities of what it means.

Update (30 April 2017): Finalised guidelines did, indeed, change little apart from those areas expected. In the meantime, Theresa May's talk of the EU-27 'lining up' against UK indicative of exactly the 'punishment' rhetoric I warned of.


  1. The vote to Leave did not come from a "victim mentality". It was a vote of ambition and self-confidence, that we can do better by being independent. Queue lots of academics slapping down the people, telling us how stupid we are, how we cannot thrive unless clever academics are telling us what to do.

    As for the EU punishing us for our vote. Of course. The Warsaw Pact never looked favourably on countries like Hungary or Czechoslovakia asserting their independence, so why would the Maastricht Pact react differently? After all, the leader did learn her politics in the DDR.

    1. The irony is that every word you write drips with self-pitying victimhood. Poor you, “slapped down” by “clever academics” trying to “tell you what to do”. Imagining yourself to be under the heel of a communist dictatorship that is “punishing” you by accepting the choice you have made to leave.

    2. You have yourself linked to Barnier saying the deal must be worse than membership. That implies they have choices and they will make them to punish the UK. Their words, not mine.

      Most Leavers are keen to get on with the negotiations, get a deal, and then start work on building relationships across the world not just within Europe. Can't wait. I hope for a good deal but if the EU don't want one that's their loss.

    3. That not being a member must be less good than being a member is just a statement of fact. Otherwise, being a member would have no meaning. If you decide to stop being a member of a golf club that’s fine. But if you then say, but I want to have just as good access to the golf course as the members do that’s not fine. You’ve chosen to leave. Do you then say that the golf club is “punishing” you because it won’t let you go on using the golf course like the members do?

  2. 'After all, the leader did learn her politics in the DDR.' This implies that Merkel is somehow a Soviet in disguise. That is absurd. It is this kind of language and casual and flippant thinking (propagated by the DM, DE, DT) which will be the UK's undoing. How can the EU take the UK seriously?

    1. Mikhail Gorbachev said "“The most puzzling development in politics during the last decade is the apparent determination of Western European leaders to re-create the Soviet Union in Western Europe.”

      So I think it is reasonable to point out that Merkel grew up in the DDR, given the quote of the former President of the Soviet Union. That does not imply she is a Soviet in disguise. It just implies she understands how power is maintained in a tight group of nations.

  3. I worry that, the intellectual elite, I yearn for a better term, but this seemingly derogatory label sums up nicely a homogenous group of people that sit across academia, politics and media and in this case is not meant to be derogatory, as I was saying, the intellectual elite are not doing their job properly.

    Assuming that one knows how Brexit will or won't pan out in the future is delusional. Assuming that one can make the argument for or against Brexit based on something as narrow as economics, is at best disingenuous or at worst malicious. One should be looking at what is the right thing to do morally, and if the resulting direction of travel has obvious economic pitfalls turning back would be tantamount to moral cowardice.

    So the great Brexit question should not be, we will be better or worse off in or out of Europe, but rather what is the right way to govern a nation? What is a nation? What is the role of Government? Are countries meant to be competitive entities, if not who do we collaborate with? If collaboration is the morally correct thing to do, then why do we draw the line at other EU countries? Why if it is morally correct to collaborate with our neighbours do we exclude Turkey, or Russia or Ghana for that matter? How far would europhiles expand Europe to prove their point, my guess is not much further than is already the case. Which actually undermines any attempt at a greater moral universal truth behind the collaboration and co-operation sentiment of the liberally minded.

    The truth is that rules are arbitrary. And as such, following one set or another is a matter of choice and agreement between parties. Labelling those that want to try a different set of rules as 'stupid' 'ignorant' or 'uneducated', as certain sections of the media and political elites have done is bizarre. Of course the majority of a population will always be relatively un-educated, when compared to the top 1%. But isn't this exactly what democracy has to wrestle with. The tyranny of the majority is not a new concept. Plato was well aware of this as laid out in his treatise 'Republic'. The question for the 1% is, Do we have maximum effectiveness is in government, or maximum fairness. If we want maximum effectiveness then we set a council of the wise to go about running the country without the input from the great unwashed. If we want maximum fairness then everyman is equal and equally entitled to his opinion, no matter how unsavoury, or ill-informed. With maximum fairness read democracy, the responsibility is on the elites to make sure that the lower classes are happy. If they are not, they will revolt. Ergo any failure of the elites to carry the day ideologically, intellectually, or politically is a failure of the elites to recognise their responsibility to the system.

    In closing, attacking those that choose to rebel, those least well educated, those least well rewarded, is to attack the very most fundamental building blocks of human society, its, processes both written and natural. Which is ludicrous. Its like shouting at the sea. The liberally minded most well educated have become complacent, they have either forgotten their role in society, or more likely never been truly aware of it. You see the failure in education, is not in my opinion at the bottom of society, but rather at the top. Our most well educated or woefully ill prepared for the biggest most fundamental questions about how we do government or society more broadly. Our academics, are very capable, but blinkered or sidelined. Our leaders live in an age of personality cult with little substance behind any of their ideologies. But it is the nature of things.

  4. There is a limit to what an intellectual elite can achieve when much of the media is controlled by a very small number of men.What we have witnessed is a struggle for power between one part of the elite and another. That a lot of the 'little people ' may suffer as a result is sadly IMO probably of no concern to the victors.

  5. That there is a political struggle for the left or right, in or out of Europe, big government little government, is of course not in any doubt. That there are those non politicians, aligned to such movements based on how well either side might benefit them personally, in either finance kudos or both, is not in question and further, was ever thus.

    What is missing from this picture is an apolitical intellectual elite/commentariat willing to adopt a philosophical, scientific certainty that explains the absurdity of the sophists. For example: The decision to leave the Eu was taken by the majority of people for a variety of reasons, all of which are perfectly understandable, if not entirely rational. It is not beyond the whit of man to see who is to blame, see my previous post for my own explanation. At this point, the leaders of the two sides, UK and Eu, have two options, either take the moral high ground, accept that the result is a wake up call, that the rich have forgotten, that the poor hold power and deliver a Brexit that harms no-one. After all rules are arbitrary and they have the power to simply sign agreements that would do just that. Or they could continue business as usual, continue to see only details, continue to see themselves as individuals, with careers to protect ego's to massage, face to save.

    To my point, an apolitical commentariat educated more broadly, concerned more with the future of society as a whole rather than the future of their own closed community, would see this, point it out and direct their criticism towards the leaders of both sides. They would point out the obvious, which is you have failed, all of you. You have made yourselves rich on the backs of the poor. This is not new. It is the cycle of things. History is littered with the rise and fall of administrations for exactly this reason. We had a chance to recognise this early and agree to not let the build up of factionalism within society result in a huge pendulum effect, ala USA. But our intellectuals our commentariat, were not up to the task.