Friday, 22 February 2019

Failing to understand

From the outset, Brexiteers like David Davis have consoled themselves with the belief that the EU would roll over at the last moment and give the UK whatever it wants.  It’s a belief to which they are still clinging, alongside the fiction that no deal would hurt the EU more than it would hurt us.  The idea that the EU ‘always’ compromises at the last moment is a pervasive one, and not without some truth.  The reality, however, is that this generally applies only in internal negotiations between the member states, when compromise is required to get everyone on board.  And that’s natural enough – the interests of member states all need to be considered and allowed for as far as possible.  However, when it comes to dealing with ‘third parties’ – which is what the UK voted to become – the negotiating stance is much tougher, and the EU is quite willing to walk away without agreement.  The assumption that the Brexit negotiations fall into the former category rather than the latter is just another example of ‘cakeism’ – the idea that the UK can have the advantages of being treated as a member whilst avoiding any of the obligations.
It is, as a result, a serious mistake.  The Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, has made it clear that anyone expecting that the EU27 is simply going to blink and change the withdrawal agreement is in for a nasty surprise.  That’s the ERG and half the cabinet then.  The assumption that it could be otherwise owes more to the Anglo-British not-nationalists-at-all sense of exceptionalism than to a hard analysis of where the EU sees its best interests.  And that latter point is key.  Perhaps it’s understandable after 45 years of membership during which the UK has become accustomed to trade-offs between fellow members, and has had no real negotiating capacity or responsibility of its own, but there has been a complete failure on behalf of the UK government to do something which is absolutely fundamental to any negotiation – understand the motivations and concerns of the ‘other side’.
May and her team – let alone the lunatic fringe of her party – have managed to give the impression (probably because it’s true) that they are completely deaf to what is being said to them, and lack all empathy with the EU27.  They hear what they want to hear and see what they want to see as though there is no possibility of any objective reality outside their own perceptions.  Even this week, we have May still saying that the talks are going well whilst the EU27 have stonewalled her and repeatedly stated that there is no possibility of giving her what she’s asking for (not least because she doesn’t really know anyway).  There’s a complacent assumption that they will budge eventually – the UK just needs to play a waiting game and hold its nerve.  The PM herself continues to pretend that it’s possible both to sign an agreement containing an open-ended backstop and at the same time find a form of words which says it isn’t open-ended.
The ERG members are unlikely to accept anything that doesn’t get rid of the legal commitment to the backstop, and I can understand why.  Any backstop is only intended by all involved to be only temporary, and it doesn’t really matter how many ways that is stated; the point is that getting out of it, no matter how determined all concerned are to do so, is contingent on getting a trade agreement which does not require the backstop.  The ERG and their friends have no intention – ever, in any circumstances – of agreeing to the sort of trade deal implied by that.  And it is that – the intransigence of those determined to seek a trade deal of a very different nature – which turns the backstop into a potentially long-term arrangement.  It’s not the Irish or the EU causing the problem; it’s the determination of Brexiteers to exit, completely and permanently, from the single market and customs union, interpreting the referendum result in a very specific way.
They claim that it is about free trade; that freed of the EU, the UK can negotiate its own bilateral trade deals across the world.  There has always been something very strange about the idea that the way to get more free trade in the world is to leave the world’s largest free trade area (an area which expands further as the EU pursues its goal of negotiating ever more agreements) and sign less favourable bilateral deals.  Whatever that is about, it isn’t global free trade.  I’ve suspected from the beginning that it’s more about ideology than trade.  At the heart of the EU’s approach is co-operation and agreement amongst the members to gradually expand the envelope of free trade across the globe.  At the heart of the Brexiteers’ position is the demand that countries should compete aggressively with each other by offering different terms of trade.  They believe (wrongly in my view) that the UK can do better by competing than by co-operating.  And that isn’t just about having a distorted view of the UK’s place in the world, it is also about an ideological commitment to competition.  Sadly, it’s a commitment shared by the leadership of the Labour Party.

No comments: