Friday, 21 October 2016

They can't help not listening

The gulf in perceptions between the UK Government and the other members of he EU was highlighted by the story about the PM’s attendance at the Brussels summit. Telling the other members that we are not only going to walk away, but we also expect to play a full role in determining the future of the other 27 members in the meantime – and also expect them to consult and involve the UK in foreign policy decisions after Brexit – is a message that could only be delivered by the leader of a government which believes its country is particularly special and important in the world.  It sounds like a message from someone who has little conception of how that message was likely to be received by the other members.  It’s hard to conceive of a more certain way of making things difficult than continuing to behave in such a superior fashion.
But it isn’t just the Prime Minister; and I’m not the only one who thinks that they’re delusional.  There was another story yesterday about a former Treasury civil servant who said that the Brexit Secretary and other ministers are living in “cloud cuckoo land” if they believe that the UK has the upper hand in trade talks as part of the Brexit deal.  His comments were dismissed, of course, by the rabid Brexiters, but their problem isn’t simply the failure of basic mathematics in what they’re saying; it is also, like the PM’s comments, based on a failure to understand where the other EU members are starting from.
Mathematically, it is of course correct to argue that the EU sells more to the UK than the UK sells to the EU; but that comparison of totals is only part of the story.  With 450 million people on one side of the equation and 60 million on the other, a higher number has a smaller proportional impact – it only becomes greater in impact if the trade balance is weighted something like 7:1 in favour of the 27.  No-one is claiming anything remotely resembling that level of disparity.
But the bigger problem is one of starting points.  It’s true, as the Brexiters claim, that if the EU takes a tough stance, then both sides will suffer – but the point is that Brexit is meant to hurt.  Exit was never supposed to be easy, and whilst the UK’s Brexiters blithely assured everyone that the other 27 would climb down in the end, all they’re succeeding in doing is making them even more determined not to makes things too easy.
The Brexiters will argue, naturally, that this is short-sighted of the EU and that they will damage their own economies as well as ours.  But that’s the whole point; from the outset, too many people in the UK have seen the EU as purely about economic advantages and disadvantages – they still don’t seem to understand that the European project has always been, from the very beginning, about more than economics.  Economics has been the means to an end, not the end in itself.
The EU was founded out of the ashes of the second war to ravage the continent of Europe in half a century, and the intention of the founders was to make sure that it could never happen again.  After the horror of total war across the territory of Europe, and the subsequent division of Europe into two mutually hostile blocs for decades, that desire for unity is entirely understandable.  But the UK has always seen itself as being different.  On the whole, the UK establishment rather seems to like going to war – and for the past few centuries, it has had the incredible advantage of fighting its wars on someone else’s territory, a factor which surely contributes to that different attitude.
For the 27, the European project is about much, much more than economics – and it’s so important to them that they will be willing to take an economic hit in order to preserve and advance that project.  Unless and until the UK government starts to understand that basic point, an approach based on an assumption that economic considerations will be top priority for ‘them’ because they are top priority for ‘us’  is doomed from the outset.  I have no expectation of seeing any change though.  Listening to, never mind understanding, other viewpoints has never been a particular strength in the upper reaches of the British establishment.  They’ve always known with a cast-iron certainty that they are right.


david h jones said...

Good post John.

Basically, only a special hypocritical, self-important, border-line racist, imperialist national ideology and imagined community like Britishness can occupy a quarter of the world and also leave the EU but expect Johnny Foreigner to still take orders from you.

No wonder the Europeans call the UK the 'little Prince'.

Brexit will see the EU teach a lesson in power-politics, realpolitik and down-right bullying which the Brits are used to giving lesser people over 300 years (and English Crown before that) but have never felt themselves.

Anonymous said...

I think the English speaking people of Great Britain will continue to prosper outside the European Union. The bulk of our trade is with the Irish Republic, another English speaking nation. Germany, Netherlands and France, our other big trading partners, sell us much more than we sell them. And they want to continue doing so. Thankfully they are the important countries within the EU, they like us, they like our history, they respect our culture and they use our language to communicate between themselves. I don't see any big issues arising here. As for the smaller nations, who cares.

History shows that the decisions of the British establishment are more often right than wrong, particularly when it comes to matters of national pride, territorial boundaries, events of war and the desire for peace-keeping. Long may this continue for without 'the British' the world would be a much more dangerous place. We know this and they know this. Why, even the Americans would agree.

Great Britain, once it sheds itself of the European flag, will return to being a nation at ease with itself. A nation that can make its own decisions for the right reasons. A nation that doesn't have to continually cow-tow in order to prove itself to be 'a good member'.

For sure the struggle for independence will continue in Scotland and Wales. But it will no longer be fashionable because there's nothing to gain and everything to lose. Activism will be well controlled, localised and above all else, entirely law-abiding. Yes, the Welsh language might take a bit of a hit but all minority groups (those separated by language, culture, religion) will continue to be protected.

In truth, I can't see why you are getting so worked up about matters.

John Dixon said...


Thank you for a superb piece of satire which illustrates so well exactly the point that I was making.

John Dixon said...

... oh, and by the way - if you were actually being serious, then I thank you again for illustrating the point about the superior attitude of the British establishment so well.

Neilyn said...

Whilst I certainly agree with what you've written here, you're perhaps assuming that the EU's fundamental strength at the negotiation table will be an unshakeable solidarity between the other 27 member states. That may be the case, especially as things stand now given the UK's current tone, but who knows how the picture will develop? Given the reported growing sense of unease in a number of member states about the immigration issue in particular, surely there's a risk that Brexit could lead to mounting pressure for similar referendums in other countries. What then? I certainly hope the EU's approach to little Britain is hard-nosed and business-like. It may need to be.

Cneifiwr said...

A very good post. Our right-wing press has never been enamoured of the EU, of course, and we can expect them to ramp up attacks on Juncker, Merkel, Hollande, Martin Schulz and the rest as "Independence Day" looms closer. One thing we are not hearing about is public opinion towards the UK in Germany, France and other EU member states.

If readers' letters in newspapers, online comments and the opinions of my (German) wife's friends and family are anything to go by, there is real anger across the board. Unlike most British voters, it seems, there is a widespread awareness of just how many opt-outs and special deals the UK enjoys as an EU member, while continuing to act like a petulant and disruptive child. Good riddance, seems to be the prevailing mood.

If, as seems increasingly likely, EU leaders do take a very tough line in the negotiations, I suspect that they will be reflecting the views of their voters to an extent which will come as a nasty surprise to those of us on this side of the Channel.

Spirit of BME said...

Your penultimate paragraph hits the right note that the EU is far bigger concept form its very inception and European peace is what it is there to maintain- failed a bit on the Ukraine, but never mind.
However, I recall a person with the same name as you in the first referendum, speaking from public platforms declaring that the institution is the work of the devil and should be rejected as a potential danger to the world – wonder where he is now?
What trade deal HMG gets will be moulded in the last two months of negotiation and that will depend of the world economy at that time, but whatever result the EU will survive. What might not survive is the Euro as 75% of the Euro debt sits in the City of London, as it was the only market in Europe able to accommodate it. If the boys with red braces decide that they are not happy with the deal they could charge more for it or ship it back to European markets and if that happen its “Goodnight Vienna”.

John Dixon said...


Yes, I remember him too, but I think your memory may be slightly playing tricks with you on the detail. I don't recall him doing much by way of speaking from public platforms at that time, let alone referring to anything as the work of the devil. He was more of a humble leaflet distributor (second class). But as for what changed his mind, see this post on which there appears to have been a comment from yourself at the time!

I haven't really become an enthusiast for the EU in its present form; it's more the case that the alternative now looks significantly less attractive than it did back then, both in itself and as a context for seeking Welsh independence. Things have moved on, and the apparent alternative at that time of a looser European arrangement has now been replaced with the alternative of a glorious stand-alone British island state. I think Wales' chances of becoming an independent state were much better within the EU than they will be in the new scenario; but that doesn't mean that I don't want other changes to the EU.