This piece was written on January 19th 2018.
With just three words, “Be my Guest”, French President, Emmanuel Macron, on a visit to the UK this week, made it clear that the EU would not bend or break its rules to accommodate the UK in any post-Brexit deal.
“In” means in, and that means abiding by the EU’s rules. “Out” means out. And the choice was the UK’s to make. No doubt, a wry smile crossed the face of the spirit of General De Gaulle, wherever he may be.
As the Europeans see it, Brexit isn’t difficult or complicated. In fact, it is fairly straightforward. It is UK politics that are difficult and that are making Brexit hard for the UK.
We believe that the EU see Brexit as follows:
1. Following a vote on June 23, 2016, some nine months later, in March 2017, the UK wrote to the European Union saying that it would be leaving the EU at midnight on March 29th, 2019.
2. The government of the UK, which is who the EU must deal with, decided to interpret the decision to leave the EU as leaving not just the political structures of the EU, but the economic structures of the Single Market and the Customs Union as well.
3. The EU responded by saying… if that is your decision then, well and good. However, before you go there are a few matters to settle such as payments you committed to, the right of people who moved to the UK as EU citizens, and the issue of a return of a border in Ireland. An agreement was reached on these matters last December, though translating them into a binding legal text may show that the two sides have different interpretations of what was actually agreed.
4. Having given notice to leave, the UK came to realise that it would not be ready to leave in March 2019. It would have neither the regulatory process nor the physical infrastructure in place to trade outside of, and with, the EU as a “third country”. The UK also needed to sort out how it stands in relations to the hundreds of agreements the EU already has with other countries. It asked the EU if it could stay “just a little bit longer”? Could a transition arrangement could be put in place?
5. No problem, says the EU. Given our own internal political and budget processes, we can let you stay until the end of December, 2021. But, if you do want to stay on, then you will have to follow all our rules, and we do mean all, while you use the guest bedroom. As a guest, you will have no say in running the house, no Commissioner, no judge on the European Court and no members of the European Parliament. We’ll be back to you in writing on all of this shortly, to make sure that there are no misunderstandings. You will probably have to sign a short-term lease.
6. When we have completely left, after the transition, can we have some form of trade agreement between the UK and the EU, the UK asks? We’d pretty much like an agreement that gives us all the advantages we have today, no tariffs, frictionless trade, little or paperwork or inspections at borders, covering both goods and services. But, of course, we have “red lines. We will not accept the free movement of people, the jurisdiction of the European Court, not will we pay into the EU budget, says the UK.
7. We’ll come back to you on that, replies the EU. In view of your red lines, we’ll look at what we can offer you, which will be a deal that we think is in our best interests, that preserves the integrity of our internal structures. And we’ll decide what we believe to be in our best interests. You don’t need to worry about that. You may think differently, but, hey, after all, you’re the one that decided to leave, to give up what you have today. No one asked you to go. It was your own decision.
So, the EU: has not tried to stop the UK leaving, just asked it to tidy up its affairs before it goes; is happy to let it stay on for a little longer so it can be in good shape when it does leave; and would be open to do a future deal with the UK that is in the EU’s own interests.
When you frame it this way – and there is no other way to frame it – the EU is behaving reasonably towards the UK while at the same time acting in its own best interests.
The problems with Brexit would all seem to be the UK side. As it appears from the outside:
1. On June 23, 2016, the UK voted 52/48% to quit the EU, with Northern Ireland, Scotland and the great cities voting to remain. The 52% represents 37% of the total electorate. With numbers like that, it would be illegal to call a strike on the London Underground. So, the process through which the decision to leave the UK was made is contested within the UK itself.
2. As the Labour Party’s chief spokesperson on Brexit, Keith Starmer, puts it: Those who voted remain in the referendum knew what they were voting for, to stay in the EU, while those who voted leave could have had many versions of leave in mind. There is no consensus within the UK, within either the main Conservative or Labour parties, or across parties of all persuasions, as to how “leave the EU” is to be understood.
3. While there are those in the UK who would leave the EU no matter what the political and economic cost, and while there is a considerably constituency to remain in the EU at all costs, the leadership of both main parties is in the grip of what has been called “cakism”.
4. “Cakism” is a set of political beliefs which grow out of the idea that when it comes to the EU the UK “can have its cake and eat it”, that the UK can have all the benefits of single market and custom union membership without any of the costs, along the lines set out in 6 above.
5. But there are two other strands in “cakism” that seem to cloud the mind and make rational political decisions difficult. The first strand is “exceptionalism”, the notion that the UK is exceptional and, therefore, should be treated differently to other “third countries” with which the EU had agreements. Because the UK is “exceptional” it is entitled to have its cake and eat it.
6. Of course, the EU does not see it that way and is not prepared to make exceptions to its rules for the UK, exceptions that would put its internal cohesion at risk. Macron made this clear in his comments last Thursday. Which gives rise to the third strand in “cakism”, “outragism”. “Outragism” holds that it is an outrage that the UK is being “punished” for the crime of leaving the EU, that it is an outrage that the EU will not let the “exceptional” UK have its cake and eat it.
7. “Cakism” infects the leadership of both the Conservative and Labour parties, though the strains of infection are slightly different. The prime minister, Theresa May, believes that she can have a “deep and special partnership” with the EU, while the leadership of Labour wants a “jobs-first Brexit”.
As long as “cakism” continues to dominate the mindset of senior UK politicians, then the UK will continue to have unrealistic expectations as to what it can get by way of a Brexit deal with the EU. For its part, the EU is behaving rationally in its best interests, as the EU sees those interests. In the dialectic between UK “cakism” and EU rationalism, there would appear to be one possible winner. As Shakespeare so very nearly wrote:
“The fault, dear Boris, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”
Our report: Brexit: Taking Stock explores the current Brexit state of play in much greater depth.