Thursday, 11 April 2019

The EU is protecting itself from Brexiter dishonesty and delusion - and throwing Britain a lifeline

We now know the conditions under which, for the second time in a fortnight, the EU-27 are willing to allow us to avoid, for now, the catastrophe of a no-deal Brexit. The British Prime Minister was sent out of the room whilst the other countries, each of whom had a veto, argued for hours over our fate and now they have decided.

Brexiters often talk of EU discussions ‘going to the wire’, imagining this to mean that at the last minute Britain will be given its unicorn cake. But these early morning talks were about whether to give the thin gruel of a short extension or the humble pie of a long extension with onerous conditions attached. In the event, the outcome was somewhere in the middle. Thus Britain has been granted an extension until the end of October, with a progress review in June. The offer comes with a pointed reminder that, as a departing member, the UK must not behave in an obstructive manner, and that the Withdrawal Agreement will not be reopened.

There is much talk of the humiliation of the UK having to ‘go cap in hand’ to the EU in search of an extension. This captures a certain truth – and one which I first wrote about on this blog in October 2017 – although it’s important to understand that it is a self-inflicted humiliation, visited on the UK by Brexiters rather than the EU.

But it also conceals a deeper and more shaming truth which is revealed by the conversations around the decision, and in particular concerns over how a lingering British membership might, intentionally or not, damage the EU. As Georgina Wright of the Institute for Government put it, the “EU gave up pressing UK for a ‘plan’ and focussed instead on making sure Brexit does not hamper EU work elsewhere”.

There are at least four dimensions to this, and as well as informing the EU’s decision making on the extension they also explain why an extension is needed at all.

Dishonesty

The most obvious is dishonesty. The entire Brexiter prospectus was a dishonest one, as becomes clearer each day, both about Britain’s membership of the EU and about what would await it afterwards. That dishonesty has spread from a small coterie of fanatics to infect the entire body politic of the UK. Thus even those who know it to be nonsense must ritualistically incant their ‘respect for the will of the people’. So in a general way there’s an understandable desire for the EU to place a kind of fire break between itself and this outbreak of pathological, incontinent lying.

This general sense of the danger of Brexiter dishonesty is personified in Boris Johnson. Perhaps more than anyone else he is rightly seen in the EU as the figure who, for years before the referendum, deliberately promulgated lies. Thus there is a specific sense in which the EU is concerned to protect itself from the possibility of a Johnson premiership (£) during the extension and (if it comes to that) transition periods. There is probably no politician in modern times who has done such comprehensive damage to British national reputation.

Untrustworthiness

But even if it were not Boris Johnson who became the next Prime Minister, many of the other likely candidates present a similarly distasteful prospect precisely because of the spread of the Brexit toxin within British politics. Even those ERG-ers who have belatedly come round to May’s deal are open in saying that they expect it to be ripped up once she is gone.

As regards the extension, comments from prominent Brexiter politicians – even those with few leadership credentials – compound the sense that the EU needs to protect itself. Jacob Rees-Mogg’s call for the extension to be used to wreck EU decision making might be seen as the worst example were it not for the onanistic Mark Francois making even more bellicose remarks. Apparently, we in the UK have to accept these ludicrous mediocrities playing a part in our public life. It’s not hard to understand why the EU are not enthusiastic about doing the same.

These people probably neither know nor care what terrible damage they are doing to the reputation of the UK as a trustworthy partner. And, in fairness, they only play a bit part in that. Far more damage was done, in a single sentence, when the then Brexit Secretary David Davis opined, after the conclusion of phase 1 of the Brexit talks, that what had been agreed was not binding. Perhaps more than anything else that poisoned trust in the negotiations.

It was compounded by Theresa May who, for all that she may appear more ‘reasonable’, followed Davis in disowning what had been agreed about the backstop at that time, saying that no British Prime Minister could agree to … what she had just agreed to. Indeed, the Article 50 talks never really progressed to phase 2 as a result, because the Conservative Party fell into a bitter internal battle about the backstop that ended up with the repeated rejection of May’s deal.

Incompetence

That was not the only reason why there was no substantive phase 2 (and, as a result, such an anaemic Political Declaration). It was also because the government couldn’t agree what it wanted from phase 2, and at the first attempt to do so, the Chequers’ Proposal, fell apart and has never recovered. This is the third strand which underlies how the EU have approached the extension. Britain is now seen, almost universally, as having descended into political chaos and incompetence.

At first, the EU thought that Britain had some ‘cunning plan’ about Brexit but this quickly evaporated. It was visually symbolised by the photo, at the beginning of the Article 50 negotiations, of the EU side having folders full of documents and the UK side nothing but David Davis’ inane grin. Symbolism aside, the substance told the same story. Throughout the process, the repeated EU call to the UK has been to ‘tell us what you want’ and to put forward a coherent plan. But, as the leaked conversation of her talks with Angela Merkel revealed, May’s approach has been to ‘ask for an offer’ which was revealing of a bigger truth: that the UK expected the EU to provide the answers to Brexit.

The incompetence inherent in Brexit was starkly illustrated this week by the comments of Geoffrey Cox, the Attorney-General and a committed Brexiter: “I feel we have under-estimated its complexity. We are unpicking 45 years of in-depth integration. This needed to be done with very great care, in a phased and graduated way. It needs a hard-headed understanding of realities”. True enough – but, to say the least, it’s a bit late in the day to be realising that.

Incompetence is not the same as dishonesty, but in this case it arises from it. For the biggest lie of the Leave campaign was precisely that it would be quick and easy, and that the UK held all the cards. That the EU now see a longer than requested extension as necessary is, in effect, saying that the UK needs to have time to deal with its internal political chaos, recognize the complexity of Brexit, and develop a competent approach to it. The diagnosis is right, but thinking that six months is enough to reach that state calls for a degree of optimism that not only cynics might think misplaced.

Delusionary thinking

Alongside dishonesty and incompetence, and closely related to them, is something slightly different: persistent delusionary thinking. The ‘quick, easy deal’ fantasy is a part of that (remember when Boris Johnson said that eighteen months were more than enough to get the entire deal, including future terms, agreed, and David Davis said that the UK was “not really interested” in a transition period but might agree one to “be kind” the EU), but it runs much deeper.

It would take far too much space to catalogue the delusions – many posts on this blog have done just that – but in recent times an obvious example is the repeated nonsense of the Malthouse Compromise and (relatedly) ‘managed no deal’. The minimal version is that the EU would agree to rip the backstop out of the Withdrawal Agreement (WA) and substitute it with acceptance of non-existent ‘alternative arrangements’. The maximal version is that the UK could ditch the WA altogether, but still have a transitional period and also proceed to negotiating a future terms deal without any WA.

None of this is realistic at the most basic level of understanding. It’s not just that the EU will not agree to it, but that they could not agree to it. But – reflecting the general point about how Brexiter poison has infected British politics – this idea is persistently floated not just by maverick figures but by leading politicians. In the last week or so ‘Malthouse’ was put forward yet again, whilst Andrea Leadsom combined the non-starter of taking the backstop out of the WA with the longstanding myth that Angela Merkel alone could and would set the terms of Brexit in Britain’s favour.

A slender lifeline for the UK

So the humiliation for Britain is not, primarily, in having had to ask the EU for an extension. It is that both the need for the extension and the way the EU approached the decision to grant it reflect the fact that Brexiters have made Britain dishonest, untrustworthy, chaotic, incompetent, and delusional.

But it’s actually even more humiliating than that. The ultimate truth of what the EU have decided is that – far from needing to ‘punish’ us – they are willing to be kind to us. We have been given the chance – carefully managed, in case we abuse it – to get our act together and to drop all the lies and fantasies.

It remains to be seen whether we are able to take that chance. Even today, the morning after the extension was agreed with the reaffirmation that the WA is closed, David Davis was on Radio 4 fantasising that with the right leader Britain could simply go back to the EU and renegotiate the WA and if not that no-deal is just fine. There will undoubtedly be plenty of other Tory MPs who will think that pursuing this fantasy will be the best use of the next six months.

Nevertheless, this new, longer delay presents remainers with a real opportunity and they should plan for the possibilities created. Assuming the European Parliament elections go ahead, there is a chance for anti-Brexit candidates to flourish on higher than usual turnout. The campaign for another referendum or for revocation will surely intensify, the more so precisely if the Tory Party decides to waste the time by intensifying its civil war. And, despite everything, there are still many in the EU who hope for and would welcome Britain deciding to reject (£) the course Brexiters have set for us and so conspicuously failed to deliver to deliver upon.

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