This BEERG Brexit Briefing (#16) was written on Sat Oct 21, 2017
Words and phrases can shape reality.
How we describe an issue or event can determines how that issue or event is to be understood. Such “framing” can be particularly important when we are dealing with some something unique, something that has never happened before. How do you describe the unknown? How do you explain the unprecedented?
One way of doing so is to compare the unknown to something known and familiar. This, in the UK at any rate, is what many journalists, commentators and academics have done when writing about Brexit, an unprecedented and unknown event. They have taken to describing the Article 50 discussions between the EU and the UK as being akin to divorce proceedings, with the key argument being about money: how much will the UK have to pay the EU as part of the “divorce settlement”?
The divorce comparison makes writing about Brexit easy because divorce is something we are all too familiar with and our culture is replete with movies, plays and songs describing the hurt and bitterness that divorce and the ending of relationships can cause.
But in the case of Brexit the divorce comparison is not only wrong, it is also completely misleading.
In a divorce, the two parties are bringing a relationship to an end. Depending on the context, the discussions may be amicable or poisoned. The couple may end the relationship without rancour or they may end up hating one another. But, one way or another, the relationship ends and both move on with their now separate lives. Yes, they may need to see one another from time to time, especially if the welfare of children is involved, but in general, after the divorce is finalised, they live independent lives. Maybe find new partners, create new families.
This is where the divorce analogy, when used to describe Brexit, breaks down. Because Brexit is not a divorce. The UK does not want to “divorce” the EU in the sense that it no longer wants to have anything to do with it.
What the UK wants is to end the 40-year marriage it has with the EU, and with it all the obligation and responsibilities that marriage brings. But, at the same time, it wants to continue to have a “live-in” relationship with the EU, a new “open relationship” that will allow the UK to continue to have the marital benefits it now has, but still be able to see other people from time to time.
The UK wants to move from being married to the EU to being a “friend with benefits”. Does not the phrase “we are leaving the EU but we are not leaving Europe” mean exactly that? “I am ending the marriage but I am not leaving you.”
Which is why the talks between the EU and the UK are so slow and difficult. Imagine that your partner of more than 40 years tells you one day that they want to end the marriage but at the same time they want to continue to live in the house with you, share the same bedroom with you but they no longer want you to have any say in their life as they are “taking back control”. And, at the same time, they want to be free to have relationships with other people.
Faced with such a statement from your partner who, yes, has always been a bit difficult to live with but whom you have grown to love anyway, to say that you would feel hurt and rejected would be an understatement.
You would be outraged and incensed, especially when it came back to you that your partner was going around the neighbourhood bad-mouthing you. (There are some in the UK who appear to believe that the White Cliffs of Dover somehow or other block all that is published or broadcast in the UK from crossing the channel to Europe).
Then, to further complicate an already fraught situation, they send you a letter saying that they are ending the relationship on a particular date and that they want, no… they are demanding… that the new arrangements are in place by that date. You never wanted the marriage to end in the first place, rocky though it was at times. Actually, if they saw sense you would be prepared to take them back, but some things would have to change.
But, with sadness, you accept that they have made the decision they have made and you tell them that if they want to end the marriage you need an agreement on the shared commitments you had entered into together. They agree to such discussions but then they keep saying that what they really want to talk about is the “future relationship” they want with you. They keep saying that they want a “deep and meaningful” relationship that looks pretty much like what they have now but shorn of all responsibilities and obligations.
Every time you say that you can only talk about the future when the present is sorted out they reply that the present is dependent on the future. “If you give me a future deal I like, friends with benefits, I’ll meet my current obligations”.
But you are never going to give them the future deal they want. They will no longer be able to come and go without hindrance or have free access to the house. You may be prepared to rent them a room but the idea that you will continue to share a bedroom is not something that you are prepared to entertain. Friends, yes. Friends with benefits, definitely no. If you do rent them a room it will be on strict terms and conditions, involving a rent appropriate to the benefits to be provided.
The problem is that they know this in their heart of hearts. Rationally, you can’t because it would mean that they got all the benefits while you took all the costs.
While a negotiation between two people along the above lines would be difficult in any event, you can multiply that difficulty exponentially when you have 29 parties on one side of the table (27 EU member states, the EU Commission and the EU Parliament) and, on the other, a government which can’t even agree among itself if today is Saturday. If Philip Hammond said that today was Saturday, Boris Johnson would criticise him for stating the obvious instead of rejoicing that the sunny uplands of Sunday were fast approaching.
Negotiations between two parties only end in a beneficial outcome if both parties see that such an outcome is in their mutual interest. When one party sets itself an impossible objective then a deal is never doable. The UK wants to have better terms and conditions with the EU from outside the EU than it had inside the EU. Why would it be in the EU’s interest to agree to that? It is just not going to happen. You can go from being a friend with benefits to being married. It just does not work the other way around.
As I write this BEERG Brexit Briefing on Sat, Oct 21, the UK newspapers are full of talk that the EU is preparing to cut the UK a deal because EU leaders feel sorry for the UK Prime Minister, Theresa May.
The EU is not going to pull a weak and worried Tory prime minister out of a political hole she has largely dug for herself. The EU will do what is in the EU’s interests. That’s what you call “taking back control”.
As for the UK? The Rolling Stones put it well: You can’t always get what you want…