Saturday 22 September 2018

Britain is humiliating itself

For all the talk of Theresa May being ‘humiliated’ at Salzburg, the more fundamental truth is that Britain is humiliating itself, with May’s facilitation. To say this is, absolutely, not to be unpatriotic. On the contrary, any failure of patriotism lies with those who have brought us to this woeful pass. For as I pointed out in a post last October, humiliation has been ensured by the way that the government has approached Brexit.

That the Chequers Proposal was never going fly with the EU was obvious from the start, and it is entirely disingenuous to claim that it has been rejected out of the blue and with no reasons given. It could – and probably still will – form the basis for further negotiation, but May compounded the inevitability of its rejection by insisting that it was the only, and non-negotiable, plan*.

This set the stage for what she clearly found a distressing and infuriating rebuff to which she has reacted with ill-judged anger. Ill-judged, at least, if the aim is anything other than gleeful headlines from the dangerously irresponsible Brexiter press and, perhaps, a slightly easier ride at her party conference. But such short-termist, domestically focussed tactics are precisely what have prevented serious, strategic engagement with the complexities Brexit.

If that is an example of May’s poor judgment, discussed in my previous post (which was quoted and expanded upon by James Blitz in yesterday’s Financial Times [£]), it’s important to re-state the fact that what happened in Salzburg grows out of the much deeper failure of the British government to get real about Brexit. If Brexit was to be done, it could never be done in the way the government has tried.

The failure to face reality

In brief, the core failure has been a refusal to acknowledge the binary choice between single market membership and non-membership. That has been evident in every twist and turn of the government’s position – quite as much (albeit in different ways) in the Lancaster House approach, which Brexiters say they supported, as in the Chequers Proposal, which they don’t. These, and other variants, seek in some way to mix and match elements of membership with elements of non-membership.

The (not entirely accurate) shorthand for the binary choice is ‘Norway’ versus ‘Canada’. It is quite misleading for the government to be saying, as May did yesterday, that these are the two unpalatable options being forced upon Britain by the EU. In the run-up to the Referendum it was precisely these two (plus a no deal, WTO option) which figured as the forms that Britain’s post-Brexit future could take. This was clearly evident in, for example, the Treasury’s modelling of these three options prior to the vote.

One of the great dishonesties of the Leave campaign was to obscure or elide the different options, especially by use of the meaningless weasel word of “access” to the single market. The great foolishness of the government since the referendum is to imagine that this campaign dishonesty could be turned into policy in the form of a ‘bespoke’ or ‘red, white and blue’ Brexit.

That was and is impossible, not because of EU intransigence but because of basic definitional issues of what the single market means. And whilst this applies most obviously to the future trade relationship, it is no less the case in relation to non-trade issues such as participation in various EU agencies and programmes.

Paying the price of failure

It is from this core failure that humiliation flows. The stubborn refusal to face reality simply makes Britain look foolish. The basic parameters of the choices available have been clear for months, stated over and over again by Michel Barnier and others in the EU. Every time, the response has been either to ignore them and press on regardless, or to rail against these statements – invariably couched in polite, diplomatic language – as grotesque insults, showing a lack of respect. These narratives of self-pitying victimhood and bellicose nationalism were in plain view in May’s statement yesterday, and in the responses to it.

So we are now paying the national price for the dishonesty of the Leave campaign and the government’s pretence that it is possible to operationalise it. When Brexit was simply a matter of domestic political debate, the Brexiters could get away with dismissing all warnings as project fear and all discussion of practicalities as the tricks of saboteurs and elitists. That is precisely what happened both before and after the referendum.

But since the referendum it has no longer been a solely domestic debate. Brexit has encountered reality, and all the bluster and bullying that Brexiters use to deride and silence their opponents is completely ineffective when conducting international negotiations. It only goes to make the country look unpleasant and rather stupid. That is the humiliation, and it has been brought upon us by Brexiters and the Brexit government – not as an inevitable consequence of Brexit, but as an inevitable consequence of the way that Brexit has been undertaken.

Taking back control?

Perhaps most humiliating of all is the call from the Prime Minister for the EU to come up with a form of Brexit which is acceptable to Britain. This, apparently, is where ‘taking back control’ has brought us.

There has actually been an undercurrent of this right from the outset, as if Brexit were a problem for the EU to sort out rather than a choice that Britain had made and was responsible for. This was evident in reports that in private meetings with Angela Merkel the Prime Minister repeatedly asked to be “made an offer”, to which Merkel replied “but you’re leaving, we don’t have to make you and offer. Come on, what do you want?” with May responding by simply saying again “make me an offer”.

It is also present, in a slightly different way, in the entire notion of a ‘negotiation’, as if getting a good deal for Britain were a shared problem, whereas in fact it is Britain’s problem: for the EU the problem is how to minimise the damage of Brexit to itself**.

We yesterday heard Theresa May saying, all this time after the referendum, and all this time since triggering Article 50, and having failed until last July even to get cabinet agreement on a policy, that “we now need to hear from the EU what the real issues are and what their alternative is”. But the real issues and the viable alternatives have been well-described and well-known for years. The humiliation lies in the refusal of Brexiters to understand and accept them, and the petulance, spite and aggression with which they react when they are pointed out.

In embracing the Brexiters, May may have brought humiliation to herself. What is worse is that it has brought humiliation to all of us, and there will be much more and much greater humiliation to come.

*For detailed analysis of the series of events that led to what happened at Salzburg, see today’s article by Tony Connelly, RTE’s Europe Editor and the doyen of Brexit commentators.
*For a fuller discussion of the negotiating dynamics, and other issues arising from Salzburg, see the latest post on Tom Hayes’ consistently excellent BEERG blog.

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